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Archive for May 16th, 2009

I’ll use a shortened version of this for my Monday column in The Gazette:

Mixing the personal with the professional has always been uncomfortable territory for journalists and especially for journalists’ bosses. Voicing opinions is another touchy area.

The Wall Street Journal weighed in on both matters last week with a resounding “no” to staff members who might be tempted to do either in their use of social media.

“Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter,” a Dow Jones email guiding staff use of social media warned. The message also admonished staff: “Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views … could open us to criticism that we have biases.”

The point of both rules seems to be to hide the person you are, as though reporting were a plastic Mardi Gras mask you could hold in front of your face and fool unsuspecting readers.

I was one of several bloggers and Twitterers during the past week who criticized the guidelines on various counts. I don’t want to re-plow that ground here, but I do want to address – and debunk – the notion that journalists can or should hide our humanity.

The fact is that the Wall Street Journal (as well as The Gazette and any journalism organization) already is open to criticism about biases. Readers attribute bias to us based on their own biases and based on their understanding of the fact that journalists are human and that all humans have biases.

Of course, we should maintain neutrality about topics we cover. But, as I have written here before, humanity actually helps us be better journalists. And I believe it can help build the credibility of our reporting. I will illustrate with three stories, one from the Wall Street Journal:

In the early 1990s, I was editor of the Minot Daily News (and wrote a weekly column) and my wife, Mimi, was a columnist for News. When she first started writing a column in Shawnee, Kan., before we moved to Minot, I advised Mimi that it was better to reveal occasional personal glimpses while writing about the community, and have the readers wanting to know you better, than to write frequently about yourself and have the readers feel they were getting too much personal information.

Mimi has never felt bound by my advice and pretty much ignored this counsel. She did write frequently about the community, but also dealt with our family life and her personal interests a lot (sometimes to the mild embarrassment of the husband and sons who became characters in her stories). My editor’s column did give occasional personal glimpses, but mostly wrote about lofty issues of journalism, the community or the world.

When I was fired, the publisher also dropped Mimi’s column. My firing drew some mild criticism from readers, but they were outraged to lose Mimi’s column. Four other North Dakota newspapers, whose editors were loyal readers, quickly picked up her column. Even as a columnist, I spent too much of my time behind that Mardi Gras mask, while Mimi was making a personal connection.

I covered religion for the Des Moines Register a decade ago. In addition to writing news stories, I wrote a column about faith, frequently expressing opinions or dealing with my own faith and experiences. People I interviewed frequently asked about my own faith and I answered candidly. I later learned from other religion writers that many are reluctant to discuss their own faith with people they cover and recoil at the thought of writing anything personal or opinionated.

I also wrote a lot about religion when I was at the Omaha World-Herald, but I didn’t write a column there. I’m quite sure I was accused more often of biased coverage (sometimes by people who inferred inaccurately about my own faith or opinions) in Omaha, where no one actually knew anything about my opinions or personal perspectives, than I was in Des Moines. When people knew we held different opinions or came from different faiths, I frequently heard appreciation for my fair and unbiased coverage.

Now for the Wall Street Journal example: In 2004, Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter in the Journal’s Baghdad bureau, sent an email to friends about her life in Baghdad. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” she started. What followed was detailed, well-written and candid, describing how difficult and dangerous work and life in Baghdad were then, one of the most chaotic times of the war in Iraq.

Someone posted the email online and it became an immediate sensation. Critics of the Journal questioned how she could continue reporting on the war. But others noted that the blunt assessment gave a more accurate account of life in Baghdad than the stories she wrote behind her mask for the Journal’s news columns.

Journalists are people. We can acknowledge our humanity and still uphold the principles of accuracy, independence and fairness. Sometimes showing our humanity helps build our credibility. People stop wondering who that is behind the mask.

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