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Objectivity vs. transparency: Let journalists be opinionated on social

June 18, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

As much as newspaper proprietors might wish otherwise, journalists are indivisible from the brand from which they write. Whether they’re a lifer at a particular title or flit between a number, each is both product and ambassador for that outlet. 

But just as social media has allowed the public at large access to audiences as large as those of publishers, it’s allowed journalists to do that same. That’s caused problems. There’s a list of journalists fired for behavior unbecoming to their employer as long as your arm. And some major media brands have effectively made public dissent a firing offense for their journalists. 

Recently both Channel 4 and Sky News in the UK have taken steps to prevent their journalists from sharing opinion on anything at all – especially if it’s not their specific beat.

Blurring the line

However, two giants of the newspaper world – Will Lewis, the former boss of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, and ex-Financial Times editor Lionel Barber – have expressed a slightly different take on the issue. They, presumably having seen the horrific collapse in trust in journalism, have decided that the “blurring of fact and opinion” has contributed to the perception that newspapers are biased and therefore untrustworthy. 

Barber said: “I would make a more general point. We’ve seen this particularly at the BBC: we have to be very careful in the way journalists are using social media. They are essentially seeing [their social media pages as] their own platforms, and it’s definitely comment. Therefore this blurring that Will rightly identifies has been massively accentuated by social media.

“And it’s not good enough for journalists to say: Oh, by the way, on my Twitter handle, these views are [my own]. Because they do work for an organization.”

Trust issues

They have a point. Bias is consistently cited as a reason for lack of trust. And the Digital News Report makes it clear that a vast array of newspapers’ target audiences value objectivity. That’s especially true for publicly-funded news organizations, But even as media marketing becomes more tribal, it’s true that the public does see pH-neutral news content as something to be striven for. 

The issue is that we each have our own biases, whether we acknowledge them or not. Social media allows the public to see that journalists (being people too) do have biases and beliefs.

Warts and all

However Lewis, Barber and the rest are wrong about the solution. The answer is not telling journalists to “just stop it.” Instead, newspapers should lean harder into making their journalists the ambassadors for their brands, warts (and opinions) and all.

Firstly, despite cries of balanced reporting, it’s bleeding obvious that publications have a political bent. The polarization of the news media is readily apparent, and we do a disservice to our audiences if we say that journalists don’t have a political agenda when their parent publications do. We shouldn’t be trying to pretend we’re objective individually. Rather, we should aim for absolute transparency about why we make the decisions we do  – even around theoretically impartial sources like data.

As The Financial Times’ senior data visualization journalism John Burn-Murdoch put it: “I think any data journalist who says that data is objective, and it’s the highest form or the purest form of journalism, I think they’re pulling your leg.

“And so the way you have to do it is you just have to put all of the politics of it aside. Think: what is the fairest, or just sort of straightest way of doing this stuff? And I think the nice thing for me in this process is that because I’ve been quite open and transparent in communicating the rationale for this stuff on on Twitter, for example, or in interviews. I’ve had to hold myself to that really.”

Clear vision

Secondly, you can’t trust what you can’t see. Having journalists simply vanish from the public conversation makes them faceless. It wouldn’t deflect criticisms of bias  – we have to trust that our audiences are smart enough to know journalists are people too. But it would remove a key way to counter those accusations personally. 

Many publications are making access to their journalists a core tenet of their membership and subscription models, for exactly that reason. Publications as diverse as The Athletic and The Atlantic offer direct contact with journalists as a major selling point. And as a byproduct, trust improves because we trust the people we communicate with directly.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of newspapers needing to get their own houses in order. Many pay their columnists specifically to be opinionated. And, while most label the distinction between reportage and columnists’ articles clearly, there is no clearer indication of a newspapers’ bias one way or another than the columnists they choose to employ. 

Money matters

Beyond the potential boost to trust of having visible journalists, there’s a financial incentive for boosting their visibility on social media. For one thing, journalists are the most ardent proponents of their own work. Typically that’s been played to the hilt by papers looking to drive traffic, but there’s evidence it works for driving subscriptions too. Membership-based publications like Tortoise gave its employees a specific discount code to pass onto potential new subscribers, and have seen significant success as a result.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News is trialing a system that allows its journalists to give would-be subscribers a reporter-specific code for a month’s free access. Writing for Nieman Lab, Hanaa’ Tameez says: “The Dallas Morning News‘ latest experiment to boost digital subscriptions is something you’ve seen before. If you’ve ever been tempted to buy a lipstick off Instagram because an influencer gave you a discount code (guilty), this works in the same way.”

Influencers and Instagram

The concept of journalists as influencers is bound to raise hackles among some. Despite that, I’ve argued before that journalists have traditionally done a bad job of communicating the value of their own publications. And they could learn a lot about being ambassadors from influencers. As it looks like Instagram might become more vital for driving conversions than Twitter, that could become an even more apt comparison.

Beyond even that, allowing journalists to be more visible and outspoken on social media could help salve one of the biggest issues of the past few years. Journalism has a real problem in not accurately reflecting the public. That’s doubly true in the UK where graduates of two universities hold a disproportionately high number of senior roles in the industry, and BAME journalists are hardly represented at all. If journalism is to regain the trust of the public, better representation is paramount. 

Papering over the cracks by hiding the opinions the public knows we hold anyway is a sop to an impossible ideal. Instead of obfuscating them and squirreling them away, we should be loud, proud  – and completely transparent.

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