Wanted: Cyborg Journalists

Or robots.

This is either a cyborg or the new food editor at the Washington Post

This is either a cyborg or the new food editor at the Washington Post

Because clearly the Washington Post wants to make sure its journalists don’t share a shred of their humanity with anyone.  At least not on social networks.

This seems to be the perspective of the Post leadership if you read their social media guidelines recently presented to its editorial staff.  PaidContent.org managed to snag the full version here.

Here’s my favorite line:

“When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists.”

The Washington Post – like many other companies these days – wants its employees to represent them 168 hours a week – while only paying them for 40 hours.  The Post says that its reporters and editors aren’t allowed to have the luxury of private lives.

Here is another excerpt:

“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.”

Welcome to Oceania.  George Orwell must be shaking his head in disbelief.

There’s no doubt that journalists need to stick to the tenants of good journalism while working on a story for their newspaper.  But how is updating your Facebook status or engaging in discussions on Twitter – while at home – any business of the newspapers?  I can understand asking journalists to refrain from discussing their personal opinions on the articles they are writing, but an outright ban on opinions seems draconian to the extreme.

It gets worse:

Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic creditability. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.”

This, of course, is patently ridiculous and impossible to enforce.  Are Post reporters in violation of the terms if they join a Jewish fan page on Facebook?  Will that be seen as reflecting a religious stance?  If they follow a politician on Twitter – is that an endorsement?  Of course not.  But according to the Post it is.  Should Post reporters not be allowed to tweet support for a family member running for School Committee in their local town because it shows political favoritism?

If you have an opinion on who is stronger Superman or Mighty Mouse can you be disciplined for showing your “favoritism” in a blog post? Could there be serious consequences for choosing Mighty Mouse?

The Post’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander tries to defend the indefensible here.  But Andrew does at least give readers insight into why the Post has made such draconian decision. One of there managing editors, Raju Narisetti, tweeted some personal observations about health care, term limits and forced retirements for older senators. The Post doesn’t want anyone to think that their editors have opinions outside of the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspaper.

As Andrew notes:

“In today’s hyper-sensitive political environment, Narisetti’s tweets could be seen as one of The Post’s top editors taking sides on the question of whether a health-care reform plan must be budget neutral. On Byrd, his comments could be construed as favoring term limits or mandatory retirement for aging lawmakers. Many readers already view The Post with suspicion and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage. The tweets could provide ammunition.”

But that’s type of thinking is impossible today. The web has changed everything. Penalizing employees for participating online – when they aren’t at work – is frightening.  In an age where newspapers are on the cusp of being obsolete, the Post should be putting more of its communications and reporting online.  It should be encouraging reporters and editors to be using social networks.  The idea that reporters and editors don’t have opinions could be hidden in the past – but not anymore.  The cocktail party chatter is now happening on places like Facebook and Twitter.

Preventing your reporters from participating is not only bad policy, but punitive.  Journalists have lives outside of work.  They should be able to discuss movies, books, politics, religion or anything else with friends and family on their personal time without the fear of being reprimanded or fired.

The Post should definitely want reporters NOT to provide commentary about stories they are working on or beats that they cover.  But other than that they should get out of the way.

Or start hiring cyborgs.

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27 Responses to “Wanted: Cyborg Journalists”

  1. In the interest of recreating comments:

    September 29, 2009 at 11:21 am:
    Oh groan. Enough of the Washington Post bashing. Show me a blogger who thinks they know how to do investigative journalism, and I’ll show you someone who would kill to write for the Post (and would follow almost any employment policy/rule). It’s not “penalizing employees” if you give them a paycheck and a portfolio of great articles.

    To which you (George) responded:

    September 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Adam:
    I didn’t have you pegged as corporate cog. So if you get a job at Company X and they tell you that you can’t post any opinions on religion, politics or race or show any “favoritism” on social networks you’d stop Twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking? Because they pay you a salary? Really?

    Just because a company pays you, Adam, doesn’t mean they own you 24/7.

  2. It really depends what the company/job is and which “online rights” I feel like keeping and those I can compromise.

    For example, when I was employed at PR agency Topaz Partners, I rarely tweeted, Facebook-ed or blogged (other than on Tech PR Gems – http://techprgems.com or podcasting). I spent parts of my day teaching clients how to set up blogs, build communities and create content. I didn’t feel the need to work on my “personal brand” (hate that term) as I was paid to promote other real brands who were paying part of my salary.

    I’ve never felt “owned” by a company. I understand that they have rules of conduct and guidance for how their employees represent the company (and clients). If Obama calls me tomorrow to be Press Secretary, I think I’d be a great Presidential non-blogging cog ;).

  3. Thanks Adam!
    I don’t think of Facebooking with friends and family as “personal branding.” It’s just having conversations and interacting. I don’t think any company should get involved in that. Clearly, companies need guidelines that restrict employees from discussing company business (especially private company business) online.

    But if an employee wants to talk about why they support green programs or healthcare reform on Twitter they shouldn’t be punished for it. We still have freedom of speech in this country.

  4. As the Clash sang, “You have the right to free speech … as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

  5. I must not write from a humanist perspective. I must not write from a humanist perspective. I must not write from a humanist perspective.

  6. at least they have a written policy, you can not work for them if you like.

  7. Hi Steven and Michael:
    What is interesting is that the Post doesn’t want to give the appearance that its journalists have opinions by preventing them from sharing them on social networks.

    Everyone knows that journalists are opinionated – very opinionated (I’ve worked in enough newsroom to know that). So what they want is the illusion that journalists are completely unbiased. The reality, however, isn’t so.

    Maybe instead of preventing participation they should start policing other activities which undermine their objectivity – such as this:


  8. HI. There was a good debate the other day on a blog I now cannot locate – typically of me – about ‘real’ critics feeling undermined by bloggers and such like. This was in specific reference to the arts – film reviews, art, etc – but perhaps there is a similar fear in journalism now that online news is just as effective for most of the punters out there. I don’t think this is true. Most people will join in the banter and gossip but when they want hard facts and research journalism will still go to the major TV stations and newspapers of the globe. Won;t they?

  9. brilliantmindbrokenbody September 30, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    The sad thing about this is that the case law as it exists gives them the right to do it.

    The short version is this: the law says that you have a right to free speech. However, you don’t have a right to your job.

    The company can’t take away your free speech, but on the basis of your speech it can choose to take away your job.

    ~Kali (a law student)

  10. Hi Steven:
    I think so. There’s little doubt that newspapers are feeling frustrated by bloggers and, primarily, content aggregators like Google and Yahoo who sell ads around their content (they do have a point).

    But what newspapers need to figure out is how to get rid of the “paper” and start focusing on the “news.” People still want it – probably more than ever. They just don’t want it delivered to their doorsteps 12-hours old and in hard copy.

    Preventing journalists from going online and participating seems foolhardy in the long term. Shouldn’t you want them on the cutting edge of communications technology? Journalism is changing – the way it is reported, delivered, discussed and shared.

    So instead of fighting the inevitable why doesn’t the Washington Post start embracing it?

  11. Hi Kali:
    Great point. I wonder if this is just in the U.S. – where most of us can be fired at will from the companies where we work (for just about any reason). Could a policy like this work in the UK or in Denmark?

  12. I agree with Steven. The sudden swarming of social networks and personal blogs where anyone with anything to say about anything at all can do so from just about any perspective has created some kind of ‘truth riot’. I’ve read some great thinking, insightful writing, and some hard facts missed by research journalists in the web; but there’s also been a prevalence of downright personal opinion often narrow and bigoted or jocular and worst, out of line. At least, some blogs honestly label the site as rants or simple reflections but others don’t. A crisis of truth is what I believe ails us, unfortunately; while its infinite facets need not out-stun each other before cyberspace became our highway, truths now constantly blind each other and are even set-up by its purveyors to annihilate each other. Is journalism then as we know it or used to know it still relevant in our age? I think it should be unless of course we’d rather live with our own truths and damn what’s more or less more truthful, meaning, facts as they present themselves not filtered from the “I”. Why should we want that kind of ‘truth’? Because I believe, it’s human nature to yearn for some kind of assurance that something bigger than ourselves has the answer.

  13. Hi Alegria:
    You’re assuming, of course, that journalism equates with truth. Journalism is really the way we convey news – how we collect and spread it. While journalists seek to find the truth – they aren’t always successful.

    This is one reason why journalism is often called the first draft of history – because we all know that first drafts are rarely the last word on the truth.

    Journalists interview biased parties and use biased research materials to try put together a story that seeks a middle ground between sides or extremes. Hopefully, you can find the truth here, but not always. And sometimes the truth CAN be found in the extremes – or belongs solely to one side.

  14. Hi gfsnell,

    I like how you put it–journalism as the first draft of history. I’m aware that the whole truth hardly ever or never really comes out; or it may years or even centuries later. Limited as our mind-reach as humans are, I beleive we can’t really presume to see it.

    I agree with you that journalists can only try to ‘seek’ the truth–as what presents itself as reality is often the end of an action, motivation, step or process toward such end. And these are where the truth lies but also where it gets transmuted, transformed, transcribed.

    Sourcing thus is always a horrifying risk for a journalist, I suppose. But if he upholds the trust of readers that he has kept his own biases and personal filters out of his reporting, perhaps we could trust we get some truth in his report or the first ‘draft of history’.

  15. Do Castro brothers bought Washington Post?

  16. Funny, I just blogged about how Facebook is the New Peeping Tom … basically informing the public that Big Brother is watching our every move there & how judgments are made about you by your friends list. I can understand both points here, but really, are national publications really going to fire journalists’ for having a life and connecting with friends & family via online social networks? Remember when Anderson Cooper showed extreme emotion while reporting during Hurricane Katrina – his ‘likeability status’ rose exponentially after that. Obviously, these Journalists were hired because of their talent in reporting news in an engaging and accurate manner, and if a company asks you to keep a ‘low profile’ or cyborgnistic persona, well, I guess it depends on how much money they pay for one to agree to that type of restraint. To each his own, I suppose.

  17. That is ridiculous. While some of it makes sense, it’s so controlling. As a writer, you have to have an online presence, but what do you write about if you are so restricted on what you can or cannot do on your off hours? Are all newspapers like the post?

  18. It’s an understandable policy, but an extreme one. As I understand it, most major companies operate with a similar policy on reflecting personal opinions online as they are often associated with the company directly so this thing about the Post doesn’t really surprise me.

  19. Hi Tricia:
    I don’t agree with that assessment. I help write these policies for companies and the Post has the most extreme I’ve ever seen. Most companies now understand the benefits of having a connected and engaged employee base. They just want to make sure company secrets and private information isn’t shared. But most support using employees as online advocates.

  20. This truth in blogging is the only journalism we left! Bye-bye spineless media !

  21. I agree. Your personal time and personal life is just that, regardless of your profession that pays the bills. 🙂


  22. Dear Editor, great post and interesting reminder about the life of a journalist. 4o hrs a week is enough to keep anyone busy however it is great fun social media, micro blogging etc. These guy’s must be real tempted and lie you say the policing of this type of activity must be difficult and as you have expressed at times very unnecessary. I hope Washington manages to find some sort of middle ground on this one. Well done.

  23. dmitri tobias lessy October 1, 2009 at 2:31 am

    as an individual, a person is entitled for her/his opinion (or no opinion, for that matter), freely.

    if we let corporates gain rights to uniform, limit or even prevent their employees from expressing their opinions (especially in their employees’ own time using private fascilities across their private social life) by rules of associations, then what’s stopping governments from doing so to their citizens should such opinions be deemed ‘not in accordance to the government’s image and/or policies’?

    then the world would be left silenced save for certain groups of corporate/government elites.

    there is no controversions here whatsoever. there is no confusing between rights and wrongs. and no compromises to be made. the issue is clear: violation of freedom of expression.

    however, perhaps such things are by-products of ancient values clashing with the brave and free new world called the internet. many have tried to try and rule over the freedom on the internet but many have failed.

    in its noble essence, technology -though owned and controlled by corporates and governments- truly belongs to all human race for the benefit of humanity,and so the internet and/or any form of mass interaction including telephones/sms, tv, radio… should be viewed as extensions of our human selves. any act to limit or prevent us from expressing ourselves using any technology available should be considered as an act against the very basic of our human rights, namely: communication.

    and -yes i talk alot- professional responsiblility does not come first before basic human rights. same rule applied to any professions. otherwise we would end up with a new market called “professional opinions for sale…” or worse, a bunch of corporate robots.

    though being a corporate robot is something that i would gladly become… for the right price 😉

    guess which country i’m from? 😉

  24. As a working journalist for forty years in Austrlai Britain and USA I can sympathise with this breathless winge. The sad moaning post is really a cut at another newspaper, They are too easy meat. Even Spiro Agnew was awfully close to the action: “an effete corps of impudent snobs” he once told me. But we like us that way! Objectivity in any form sucks,

    Wash Post can ride this HUGE storm out. No worries, mate. That is some of the smoothest staff memo writing I have seen since ,well, ABC Radio’s Keith MacKreill. Great words.

    Get back to your desk and phone – and stop building brand except as “a member of a team, say.” Or better still, get out there on the pavement and look for stories, like journos once did…Oh, and write good.

  25. Wow, nothing like constraining liberties! I wonder if it has anything to do with newspaper companies reluctance to fully embrace the web and the digital movement. Great post by the way, spent the 1st hour this morning reading some of your other posts too. Hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to link you on my blog.


  26. Hi Brad:
    Why would I mind? Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  27. cyborg journalists… funny… but bloggers (real news blogs) are exactly like that

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