Why can’t the news be more honest?

Dow Jones, the company that owns the Wall Street Journal, recently issued some directives concerning employee use of social media (read: Facebook, Twitter). (Thanks, Lucas!)

Some of the rules make sense, like not using fake names, not expressing partisan opinions, and not engaging in epic flame wars with those who would criticize you. Some other ones are the kind of stuff you might not think of off the bat, like not Facebook-friending anonymous sources.

And then there’s the cover-your-ass boilerplate that sounds like it’s meant more to build a wall between journalists and readers than to ensure journalistic integrity: “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited. Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has issued orders that employees are not to write blogs that discuss work, aren’t allowed to link to competitors or even discuss them.

It’s unfortunate that even with the rise of the Internet, major news organizations still fear true transparency. They’re all about using Facebook and Twitter for marketing and finding that man-in-the-street source that turns an issue story into a human interest story. But the news media want to project an image that they are without flaws.

Steve Proulx explored this issue in a recent post, pointing out that they’re particularly awful when it comes to reporting bad news about themselves.

Quebecor, Canwest, CTV and others will dutifully report on the press releases issued by their parent companies, but when it comes to analysis, you have to seek out their competitors who are more free to explore the issues.

An exception to this is the CBC, who – probably because they’re a public broadcaster and are ultimately responsible to politicians instead of corporate shareholders – follow a culture where employees can be critical of management and don’t have to clear every Twitter post through corporate PR.

These are generalizations, of course. There are probably many middle managers at the CBC who believe in silencing dissent, just like there are some at private media who believe in transparency.

But when in doubt, many media err on the side of keeping embarrassing information to themselves, or at least trying to bury it.

That’s unfortunate, because it builds resentment among honest journalists, and mistrust among news consumers. Neither of those is healthy for a news organization.

We all have flaws. Some of them are embarrassing, others less so. Most distill down to something more complex than “we’re evil” and would probably be understood – even if not agreed to – by the audience.

Building a culture of honesty by putting one’s flaws out there for people to see gives people the impression that the news outlet they’re dealing with is like them: human.

2 thoughts on “Why can’t the news be more honest?

  1. Dominique J-S

    “don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited. Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.”

    In my opinion, the stuff described above makes for the best tweets. I’ve noticed some journalists will tweet about stories they’re working on, but i’m always worried about “crossing the line” so I tend to err on the side of caution. It’s kind of tough to navigate. It’s ok to use social media to help advance a story, i.e. finding sources, but there’s a double standard when it comes to fully participating in social media.

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  2. Horonymous

    How about CTV’s save local TV sham passing off as news.

    Or Rogers media stations ignored the uproar surrounding the data rates on the release of the iPhone last summer until Rogers modified their rates. Then it was one big oral consultation on the part of Rogers media stations sucking up to the mother ship.

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