It’s time to admit that journalists are human beings

The recent furor over NPR host Lisa Simeone’s involvement in a Washington-based offshoot of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests has drawn attention again to the issue of whether journalists should be allowed to have — and express — their opinions about social issues. Some believe that “transparency is the new objectivity,” in the words of author David Weinberger, and that this is appropriate in an age when the web allows for a multiplicity of voices. Former Slate media critic Jack Shafer also falls into this camp, and says the days of asking journalists to pretend that they are automatons without opinions should be coming to an end.

One of the most alarming aspects of Simeone’s case is that she isn’t a political reporter for NPR or even involved in anything political at the public-radio station in Washington she was freelancing for: she hosted a musical documentary program called Soundprint for WAMU, from which she has apparently been dismissed, and was also a host of another show called World of Opera for NPR. Why would NPR or any other public-radio affiliate care whether someone hosting a music program was involved in a social protest? Because the issue of journalists — of any kind, but especially the government-funded kind — having political opinions is still fraught with controversy.

Why shouldn’t journalists be able to express opinions?

There have been plenty of other cases that make this point as well: Last year, for example, CNN (s twx) Senior Editor and Middle East expert Octavia Nasr was fired after more than two decades at the news channel because she posted a sympathetic comment about the death of an alleged terrorist leader to her Twitter account. As I wrote at the time, these kinds of events force media outlets to confront the myth that journalists are objective — and that reporters can’t have or express opinions about the topics they cover. If anything, I think news consumers would be better off if they expressed themselves more rather than less, so that everyone would know where they stand.

Former Slate media critic Jack Shafer, now a columnist for Reuters, (s tri) said something similar during a live discussion about objectivity and journalism hosted by the Poynter Institute on Wednesday. As Shafer put it:

We’re kidding ourselves and kidding our readers when we pretend that journalists have no opinions and no biases. My view is that journalists can’t be objective, because as human beings we are all subjective. What we can do is employ an objective method in the reporting and writing of the news: To be fair, to be accurate, to be comprehensive. If a reporter pledges to do that, I have no problem with them having opinions.

Unfortunately, Shafer says, many editors remain “deeply invested in the idea that their reporters should walk through life like un-biased zombies,” which leads them to question everything from whether reporters should be fans of specific Facebook web pages to whether they should be allowed to express opinions on their Twitter accounts. These kinds of fears are what lead to the kind of soul-less — and also ultimately unenforceable — social-media policies that many media outlets come up with, which prevent their reporters and editors from engaging with readers in any way, including in the comments on their stories or in Twitter discussions about the topics they cover.

Readers can make their own judgments about bias

Shafer said that he was sure his new employer, like most established media entities, likely restricts the ability of its journalists to belong to political parties or express political opinions, but that he thinks this is wrong. But won’t readers be misled by the biases of the journalists they listen to or read? Shafer doesn’t think so:

I have great faith in the average person because I am one. I’m of normal height, normal IQ, I went to a school that once called itself Western Normal College. So, yes, I think average readers can calibrate for bias.

In some ways, Shafer seems to be advocating a position similar to one described by The Economist earlier this year, as part of a package about the evolution of journalism in an age where anyone can be a publisher and a reporter — thanks to what Om has called the “democracy of distribution” provided by blogs, social networks and tools like Twitter. As The Economist noted, the disruption of media has created an environment much like the early days of journalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of mass media forms like the newspaper or the radio program.

As Shafer said in the Poynter discussion, having reporters and other journalists disclose their views and opinions actually makes it easier for readers and listeners to determine whether they want to trust their reporting — and as David Weinberger noted in his post about transparency, the web allows for the inclusion of links and other features that make it easier for users to check facts and come to their own conclusions. Objectivity, he said, is “a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.” It’s time we allowed journalists to be human beings, both online and off.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Rosauro Ochoa and Yodel Anecdotal