Newspapers, the heralded vanguard of free speech, are currently embroiled in a heated debate about how that freedom applies to them.  About a week ago, The Washington Post responded to an editor’s Twitter posts with an organization-wide memo with guidelines on social media. 

Narisetti took down his Twitter account, but Google’s caching function lets one see what it looked like shortly before it was taken down.

The guidelines, which were not initially made public, have since been posted on and focus primarily on preventing public announcements of bias, opinion or preference.  Excerpts include:

"When using these networks [Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace are mentioned], nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment.  We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism."


"All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens.  Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website."

While the paper likely took action because it feared an outcry in response to Narisetti’s tweets (which most agree could be viewed as biased, or even offensive), it has been the response that has generated outcry.  Journalists, media pundits, PR folks and engaged readers alike have all jumped in to debate The Post’s response.
The guidelines prompted a range of negative responses – from outrage at the apparent suppression of free speech and the individual’s subordination to the corporate machine to laments about the “Old Media’s” inability to adopt “New Media” and predictions of an accelerated death for the Post.

On the other side of the debate, supporters have come to The Post’s defense, reasoning that the guidelines reflect common sense and are a welcome compass in the labyrinthine world of interactive media.  Below are a few nuggets from those who have a great stake in the debate, media professionals themselves:

From BusinessWeek’s Stephen Baker’s post “How I run afoul of Washington Post’s social media rules – and why

"In today’s political environment, expressing concern about global warming, Stowe Boyd notes, could be used to show bias. Voicing any opinion about Israel or the Palestinians, sex scandals in the Senate, health insurers, you name it, would appear to be verboten."

"It seems that the Post wants all the good stuff from blogs and social networks—extension of their brand, traffic to their site—but without any of the problems that come from losing control. Yet the power of these social tools grows from the very freedom of expression that the Post editors are trying to rein in."

Over at Time, James Poniewozik concludes in his blog post:

“If you slant your coverage, hiding your beliefs does not make your work better. If your work is fair, sharing your beliefs does not make it less so (on the contrary, it provides your reader more information to keep you honest). But by perpetuating a fiction no one believes anyway, newspapers don't make themselves trustworthy; they just seem phony.”

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz wrote in, “To Tweet or Not to Tweet

"Not to put a damper on a great fuss, but I think this is entirely reasonable. I don't see it as a corporate attempt to crush creativity and sap the soul. People follow journalists on Twitter and Facebook because they're interested in what the person writes, blogs or says on television. We can't pretend we're random people who can just pop off at will.…I don't think the guidelines reflect a lack of trust. There's no czar in charge. Management is just asking folks to think twice before sharing something with the world."

Whatever your perspective, it’s clear that the Post has hit a nerve here.  The number of blog posts on the topic and the range and depth of the comments indicate a much larger issue at hand than one of a single paper and a few tweets.  Indeed, much of the meat of the debate is to be found in readers’ comments to other journalists’ responses; rife with analogies to the legal system and government and well-laid logical arguments, these often raise the debate to an issue of ethics and philosophy.

What are your thoughts?

  • Do journalists have an obligation to veil their personal opinions?
  • Does disclosure of bias help or hurt the traditional media, which are increasingly mistrusted based on the grounds of bias?
  • What does the historic journalistic ideal of objectivity mean in a world of the thin-and-growing-thinner division between professional and private life?

– Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her at @cmorgan