Twitter Forces Media to Confront the Myth of Objectivity

Twitter has claimed another journalist — this time a senior editor at CNN, and a 20-year veteran of the news network. Octavia Nasr agreed to leave the company after she posted a message on Twitter expressing sadness over the death of a Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, which is designated by some countries (including the U.S.) as a terrorist group. Although other journalists have lost their jobs for things they posted on Twitter and other sites, Nasr is probably one of the most high profile to leave for something she tweeted, and her departure is likely to reignite the debate over whether journalists should share their personal opinions on social networks.

In a message posted on July 4th at 4 a.m., Nasr — who contributed to the network’s Middle East coverage — said that she was sad to hear of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah’s death, and that she respected him as “one of Hezbollah’s giants.” A CNN spokesperson said that her comments were “an error in judgment” and that they “did not meet CNN editorial standards.” Ironically, Nasr was described in her online biography at the network as “a leader in integrating social media with newsgathering and reporting.”

Nasr said in a blog post that her comment was misinterpreted, and that she didn’t mean she agreed with everything the Hezbollah spiritual leader believed about Israel. She also said that her experience “provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.”

Nasr’s departure is the latest example of the double-edged nature of Twitter when used by the media: its brevity and personal nature makes it the perfect medium for journalists to both report the news and express themselves, and allows them to connect with readers more easily than traditional publishing methods — but those features also make it the perfect weapon for pointing out what critics might take to be a journalist’s failings or personal foibles. And it is tempting for reporters and editors using Twitter outside of the newsroom to say the things they couldn’t say while they were busy trying to remain objective.

Even reporters and editors with the New York Times and Washington Post have succumbed to this temptation: the Times got some attention last year after reporters there posted comments to Twitter about an internal staff meeting, and the Washington Post drafted what some saw as an overly restrictive policy on the use of social media that eventually led one of the newspaper’s managing editors to cancel his Twitter account for fear of breaching them. And as more journalists start to use Twitter and other social-media tools, this kind of conflict is likely to become even more common.

The reality is that social media forces journalists to confront the fact that while many of them pretend professionally to have no opinions — outside of the op-ed pages — reporters and editors have plenty of their own views on the issues they cover, and those views can color the journalism they produce. In the interests of full disclosure, I agree with TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, who argues that allowing journalists to express their opinions is a positive thing, because then everyone knows where they stand, instead of suspecting hidden agendas.

David Weinberger, a former fellow with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has also argued that “transparency is the new objectivity,” and that readers can now make up their own minds about whether journalists are credible or not by looking at the sources of the news they are reporting, rather than relying on the notion of objectivity. “Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases,” he said in a blog post last year. “Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.” Transparency is also much more effective online because journalists can link to supporting evidence for their arguments, Weinberger said, instead of just relying on the principle of objectivity to buttress their opinions. “Objectivity,” he wrote, “is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

And now that most media companies are trying to engage in that new medium, they had better get used to some of the new rules — and that includes reporters who might express potentially controversial opinions on Twitter.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user cliff1066