Does Social Networking Threaten Journalistic Integrity?

by Shannon Paul on November 27, 2009

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Given recent updates to the L.A. Times social networking policy for journalists, I can’t help but ask whether or not social media really does threaten journalistic integrity.

Here are some of key points in the L.A. Times’ revised social networking policy to consider as outlined in a staff article in Editor & Publisher:

  • If a reporter friends/fans an interest group on any social network, she must also become a friend/fan of an interest group with an opposing viewpoint.
  • Becoming a friend/follower of a professional contact may reveal her as a potential source.
  • Any transmission of information online including a retweet of a post on Twitter should be treated with the same caution and standards as anything that would go into the formal publication.

While I can’t say I’m totally shocked by this, I am definitely interested to see how policies like this impact profit margins in mainstream media over the next few years.

The problem for me lies in what a policy like this leaves out: what the journalists actually can do in social networks. According to this policy, journalists are a-okay to:

  • Post links to his/her own work for the publication
  • Avoid people
  • Avoid conversation

The trouble with this equation lies in the fact that without conversation and passing along others’ information, the only reasonable thing left to do is to post links to your own work and chat with coworkers. Why bother?

I also can’t help but question the stark contrast between what many propose is the best way to build an online presence… tenets like be human, be genuine, be approachable, don’t use the channels as a one-way means to broadcast your stuff (links to articles, products, webinars, etc.).

This leaves the question of integrity.

I’m not a journalist, but I have a difficult time understanding how inclusivity, personal accessibility and engagement in genuine conversation with others poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

Kristine Lowe, on the other hand, is a journalist and she has some great thoughts on impartiality, consensus and PR related to journalists use of social media.

Kristine questions whether journalists’ tendencies to talk only amongst peers online exacerbates media’s herdlike behavior and points out that public interaction with PR folks is preferable to closed-door meetings. She expresses excitement over PR’s ability to get better acquainted with her work in social networks like Twitter in hopes of more targeted pitches to her inbox, and notes inherent opportunities in social media to engage and expand readership of the publication.

My thinking around this issue is that the older broadcast-type media channels are at a crossroads. Many are adapting rather well to social media, some are struggling to adapt, and others are refusing to compromise the institutional tenets of the past.

Which publications will come out winners as a result? Despite leanings one way or the other, the outcome is still anyone’s guess.

Should we expect journalists to behave differently online than other types of professionals? Do policies prohibiting personal interaction make sense for those responsible for delivering news? And, perhaps most important, does social networking threaten objectivity and integrity?

What about perceived objectivity and integrity? Could the L.A. Times have a point?

I have my own thoughts on the matter, but I’m interested in learning what you think. In order to embrace social media, what are we really asking journalists and mainstream media to give up?

Photo by Frederic Poirot

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

November 27, 2009 jpmarth 1

If journalists expect to be taken seriously and seen as trustworthy, they must act in such a way to maintain such attributes. This will require them to be involved in the conversation, and not just continue to hit the “forward” button on a story or info. There is a reason it is called SOCIAL media..


November 27, 2009 Shannon Paul 2

I think the difficulty here is that in the past, trust was built on professionalism, big brands, and institutional power distances, but now with the web, trust is built on personal engagement and interaction. I think this is where the difficulty arises, but I could be wrong.

Thanks so much for the comment!


November 27, 2009 Richie Escovedo 3

Interesting questions Shannon, I wonder though if it could be parsed down between distinct types of journalists for example columnists vs. reporters. With columnists, you are sort of buying into the fact that they bring their personality into their writing. By contrast, one would hope a reporter is not going to let their personal beliefs get in the way of the facts of a story. That being said, I think it would be difficult to expect journalists to behave a certain way in the social web since the human element will always be there. And that’s a good thing. I want to read real people. I want to pitch stories to real people.

To answer your bigger question of whether or not social networking threatens objectivity and integrity, I’d have to say no…until it does. What I mean is, I’m can give journalists the benefit of the doubt until I get (or my organization gets) burned by one and I find out they were engaging in what could be perceived as professionally questionable activities in socnets. As with most things, it comes down to personal choice and being smart about your online postings.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

- @vedo


November 27, 2009 Shannon Paul 4


Thanks for the thoughtful comment and such an interesting answer: “To answer your bigger question of whether or not social networking threatens objectivity and integrity, I’d have to say no…until it does.”

It’s a great reminder that a lot of the parameters around online human interaction and how that blurs the line between personal and professional. I guess some publications are bracing for worst-case scenario whereas others are hoping the benefits will far outweigh the risks.

Thanks again!


November 28, 2009 Todd Schnick 5

I have a radio show where we feature and spotlight business leaders, and share their insights, successes, and failures with our community.

I also have a venture, sort of an extension of the radio show, where we travel the country to interview and spotlight business authors. We have this notion of keeping some sort of jounalistic integrity but NOT charging for these video interviews (we do encourage the authors to use them to promote their books).

Many friends think we are nuts to NOT charge for these interviews (if for no other reason than to recoup our travel costs). We are really struggling with how to build this model.

Although our situation is different than the example cited in your post, we are kinda struggling with a similar idea.

It will be fun to see how this scenario evolves over time…


November 28, 2009 Shannon Paul 6


It seems a lot of people are struggling with a similar issue: How to build a business model around content. I hope you find a great way to leverage the work you’re doing into a profitable business.


November 28, 2009 Rufus 7

For journalists, objectivity and impartiality builds trust. For the rest of us, personal engagement and interaction builds trust.

When a journalist reports on a story, I don’t want to be forced to go through that secondary layer of “Can I believe this?” It’s enough work doing it for what now passes as news on television. There are no Walter Cronkites anymore, only shouting heads with a point of view. And it is a lot of work to discern when they are lying to me. A lot of people don’t even bother and look how polar (and arguably dumber) we have become as a result.

If a story exists, good journalists who are LISTENING to the social networks will find it. If it needs to be pushed and prodded and spun by PR folks to “dupe” journalists into printing it, it probably didn’t have legs to begin with.

The abdication of personal opinion in favor of objectivity is something a journalist accepts as part of the job. When s/he can no longer, h/she becomes a book writer, columnist or tv news opinion show host. Sometimes all of the above.

One more question we need to be asking: Do we want to know how a journalist thinks because of how that would influence the story or how we can then influence them for our own purposes? I think the policies are in place with the LA Times to protect the journalists from US just as much as us from the journalists :-)


November 28, 2009 Shannon Paul 8


I don’t know — I’m torn. I think transparency and speaking openly about times when it’s difficult to be objective is more honest than any rote guise of objectivity. Any approach that presents information and encourages others to make up their own mind is way more helpful than only presenting the facts that support your argument.

While I’m not a journalist, I know from studying and practicing journalism as a student that you basically construct an article from bits of information in a way that tells a story. Rather than injecting your opinion, you let others’ opinions craft the narrative. At the end of the day, the journalist still picks the quotes to insert into the article.

Maybe it’s not about talking to people on Twitter, but in many cases it would be exciting to see journalists answering reader comments on their own articles, or having some kind of “extras” bits available on a story that includes interview quotes and data bits that didn’t make the article. Just a thought…

Thanks for making me think :)


November 28, 2009 Ben Smith 9

As the social media manager for a news operation, with print, broadcast and online divisions all to be considered, this has been a big question and something we’ve had to look at carefully.

Here’s the blog we shared making our social media policy public and talking about how we developed it.

I’m happy we gave enough direction within these guidelines. I just couldn’t justify going to the extent I see others push their policies too.


November 28, 2009 Ben Smith 10

Sorry, here’s the link:


November 28, 2009 Shannon Paul 11

Thanks, Ben for sharing the link. I’m sure you have your work cut out for you, but having a policy and talking publicly about how you developed it is a fantastic step.

Thanks again for sharing the information!


November 28, 2009 RG 12

Perhaps the current lists feature (to use twitter as one example of social interaction) can evolve. Conversations that occur within a ‘Journalists’ or ‘News’ list by journalists can be seen as conveying news and discussing issues neutrally. Then, outside of the list the journalist can take a more personal approach.


November 28, 2009 Jillian Marie 13

I wrestle with this issue in my mind quite often. I think social media is fascinating, overwhelming, scary and fantastic, all at the same time. I wonder if news is more informative, accurate and accessible as an online conversation (drawing from the wisdom of the crowd), or if something is lost. It’s a really tough call. I can say that one of my favorite journalists/storytellers, Hunter S. Thompson, never really believed in objective journalism. He thought that real truth presented itself in subjective narratives and had little to do with hard facts. I tend to agree. Social media may reinforce that notion. There are just A LOT of narrators to choose from in social media.


November 29, 2009 Paul Westlake 14

Ideology and money have the potential to threaten journalistic integrity more than anything else. Like any other tool, social media is an extension of what the user brings to the interaction. It amplifies the ideologue as much as it tempers the moderate. As far as drawing inferences from following or friending a person or interest group that may have an agenda, I think that’s a stretch. What’s the “opposing viewpoint” to the ACLU – the neo-nazis? How about AARP – the Mickey Mouse Club? Journalists are in the information business and the wider you cast your net, the more likely you’ll find something worth reporting. The worst case scenario for a reporter is not knowing something when everyone else does.


November 29, 2009 Warren Whitlock 15

The discussion of what a journalist should disclose is humorous. I’d be laughing out loud were it not for the sadness of seeing the stuck in the old paradigm.

While deciding what to disclose, the news has been tweeted, posted and discussed.

Humans what to connect directly to news and other people.. any system set up to block that is in peril


November 30, 2009 Daniel Honigman 16

First off, I think it’s foolish to believe a social media policy, in and of itself, will affect MSM profit margins.

Reporters must get over the fact that the way they act online will reflect the way they act offline. Following someone on Twitter may reveal someone as a source. So if you don’t want someone to know about your sources, just don’t follow them.

At the end of the day, many reporters don’t regularly need anonymous sources and in many cases, those sources aren’t even on Twitter. But the Times is right to lay these tips out, and it comes across as an FYI, not as a must-do.

Journalists aren’t stupid. In fact, they’re right in raising these questions. But here are some simple do’s and don’ts:

- Do use social media to build your audience. Don’t use social media to tip your hand, if you’re in a competitive market.

- Do use social media to be an evangelist for your news brand. Don’t use it to pimp your brand exclusively — post links from your competitors when they beat you on a story.

It’s great you’re opening this up for debate, Shannon, but I’d love to see your point of view on this.


December 6, 2009 Ivan Walsh 17

A relatively successful journalist once said to me, “the job of a good journalist is to befriend the subject and then betray them at the optimum moment.”

For many of us the concept of ‘journalist integrity’ is an oxymoron.

Hope that doesn’t sound cynical but that’s my experience with them. The rest is moral posturing.



February 26, 2010 Kristine Lowe 18

Very interesting discussion. I linked to it above from the former blog of Norwegian Online News Association (NONA), which I run (former because we just moved the blog to a new site). Now I was going to say, but almost forgot in the endless deadline race: does talking to people in the pub threaten journalistic integrity? Essentially, that’s what we’re doing in social media, talking to people, the only, and major, difference is that much of what we say online is public and, due to permalinks, searchable.


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