Journalists Consider Risks, Conflicts of Running Personal Blogs
Implementing strategies developed by millions of office workers who have honed the practice of flipping from computer solitaire to spreadsheets at the first sign of a lurking supervisor, I hid my blog from my co-workers. I had been a blogger for nearly four years by the time I entered the newspaper industry in 2006, and when I later accepted a reporting job at The Smithfield Times, a small Virginia newspaper, I had been blogging for half a decade.
Given the widespread distrust that many within the newspaper industry harbor toward the blogosphere, I understood from the beginning that I was walking a thin line. In the reporter’s quest for objectivity, the question of how much the presence of a blog can undermine his reporting duties is one that is rarely fleshed out, especially between the reporter and his employers.
Perhaps the obvious thing to do in such instances would be to suspend publication of a blog or website completely, but as with millions of young Americans who have become ingrained in social media, blogging has essentially become inextricably linked with who I am as a person. I’ve often wondered what I would say if a publisher or editor told me that I would have to cease blogging or risk termination; I honestly don’t know if I would comply.
To avoid having to make such a decision, I sunk into a don’t-ask-don’t-tell cloud of non-disclosure. I developed strict rules to govern my blogging behavior and hoped that these guidelines would save me on the inevitable day that someone took the few moments to Google my name and click on the first item at the top of the search results.
I’m not the first journalist to consider the implications of running a personal blog while simultaneously working full-time at a media company. Gary Scott registered the Blogspot account for his blog, Reporter G, in February 2004, but he didn’t begin penning posts there until after he left the newspaper industry — where he had worked as both a reporter and editor — and became a radio producer. Scott wrote for and edited a string of California newspapers from 1997 until the end of last year, when he accepted a producer position for “To The Point” and “Which Way, LA?” on KCRW, a public radio station in Santa Monica.
I asked whether he was hesitant to enter the blogging fray while still in newspapers, and whether maintaining a personal blog as a radio producer posed less of a risk. He agreed that working behind the scenes makes him less vulnerable, explaining that the multiple layers of review that separates him from the host provides at least some cushion. But he said that he still maintains the philosophy that a quality journalist must approach any issue without passing judgment, and insisted that this philosophy is reflected in his personal blogging.
“I don’t think those standards preclude blogging, but they certainly create challenges that you really have to sit down and think about,” Scott told me. “You don’t just start practicing at it and hope everything turns out, because…this is kind of like the permanent record that we were all warned in school that we had but we didn’t. You put something under your name and it’s out there and essentially it’s there forever…It’s not that people can’t have opinions, they do, but it can easily compromise you if you make an offhanded comment about something being stupid, or something ridiculous, or that someone should or shouldn’t have won an election, and then three months or three years from now you have to interview that person [and] they have that as evidence against you.”
KCRW doesn’t have a written guideline for writers, although Scott said his bosses say that he needs to be sensitive about what he writes and should keep his immediate boss, Warren Olney, informed about the blog when appropriate.
Would that mean a reporter can’t talk about his beat in a personal blog? Scott pointed to a recent story about several current and former L.A. Times staffers suing Tribune Company owner Sam Zell as one that might see some crossover coverage between his blog and his radio show.
“If I’m on my blog saying ‘hurray for the L.A. Times employees for filing this lawsuit’ and I try to put a show together, I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to try to get people on the management side [of the L.A. Times] and tell them we’re going to give them a fair shake,” Scott said. “And it’s also a matter of not compromising myself, so when I call them up and ask them to be on the show they won’t say, ‘Well, I know who you are and what you said and I don’t think I want to have to deal with you guys.’”
Scott said he recognized that running a personal blog might pose too much of a risk for a reporter, depending on the beat. If a journalist is covering city hall, for instance, that closely knit group may be averse to the kind of coverage afforded by a blog, potentially damaging the reputation of the news organization for which the reporter works.
What Not to Cover
Though many major news outlets have yet to develop any comprehensive policy that specifically addresses blogging, there have been a few that have ventured into the fray and attempted to remove the fog of ambiguity around the do’s and don’ts within the medium. Andrew Nusca, a recent Columbia University journalism school grad and editor and producer for ZDNet (part of CNET, which was recently acquired by CBS), forwarded me a copy of the blogging policy that his company made available to him.
From the very beginning, it stresses every form of disclosure, demanding that the employee alert his supervisors to the blog’s existence and ask permission before mentioning anything even tangentially related to his work. For instance, a blogger must get permission before even mentioning that he’s a ZDNet employee.
“If you receive permission to identify yourself as a CNET Networks employee, or if you are readily identifiable as an employee of the Company or a particular property, you should include the following disclaimer within your blog: ‘This is my personal blog and is outside of the scope of my employment with CNET Networks and [insert relevant brand],’” the policy states.
Interestingly, it also mandates that the blogger should “do your homework,” essentially requiring that the employee must adhere to the same journalistic standards in his personal blog that he would in work. “Check your facts and give readers enough context to understand whether a particular post is written to report, analyze or offer an opinion on an issue,” it says. “Use citations and provide links to other relevant topics. Correct any mistakes.”
Given his recent graduation from J-school, I asked Nusca whether his professors had addressed how to simultaneously exist in both the traditional news world and that of social media, and he responded that though those issues were certainly noted, no “set-in-stone lessons” were given.
Before graduating, Nusca had interned for several major news outlets, including Men’s Vogue and Popular Mechanics. But as with my blog, Nusca’s blog The Editorialiste, preceded his full-time staff position in the industry. I found that our blogging philosophies were mostly similar in that we shared the same red flags when it comes to where to draw the lines in blogging.
“Personally, I have the divide that I just generally don’t write about anything that goes on at work,” he said. “Because I started the blog before I got where I am now, the topic was already sussed out. Just by the nature of having chosen a topic that doesn’t require me to be on the inside of anything, that prevented me from digging my own grave, so to speak. I also hold certain principles for myself. Anytime I criticize another media company or anything, I’m doing it on my own. I never claim to be speaking on behalf of the company.”
When speaking to sources for this article, the nature of objectivity inevitably reared its head. Is the search for unbiased coverage bound for failure, and if so why should it matter if one betrayed his or her true subjective viewpoints in a blog post?
“I’m in the camp of respecting the fact that people aren’t objective because they are human and opinionated,” Nusca said. “But I have the utmost respect for those who know where and when to use it. If the venue is established, the rules may change. If I’m a White House correspondent and my name is very well known…it may be less of a good idea to keep [a blog], because you are inexorably tied to your organization at that point, which is unfair but true.”
Many media organizations would agree that this tie exists, even when a journalist is technically off the clock; several have tried to keep their employees from tarnishing any perceived objectivity at the company. One example is when CNN released a detailed employee blogging policy earlier this year. The 1,200-word document addresses nearly every form of social media and bars every single worker from writing about any issue that CNN covers or may cover in the future.
The policy was instituted after the firing of Chez Pazienza, who announced his exit from CNN on the very blog that caused his termination. “What was the reason for my abrupt and untimely dismissal?” he wrote in February. “You’re reading it.”
Pazienza’s firing rocked the news media world as thousands of bloggers debated the reasoning of his canning and whether CNN was justified in pushing him out. He had been a relatively low-level producer at the news network when one day one of his superiors confronted him about his postings on not only his personal site but also on Huffington Post and the film review blog Pajiba.
Though the higher-ups at CNN cited an arcane reference in the employee handbook that banned CNN employees from writing for outside publications without prior approval, Pazienza said that at least one of the network’s employees admitted that it was Pazienza’s opinions — which were sometimes transparently partisan — that had irked CNN management. (CNN did not respond to two email requests for comment).
Pazienza’s subsequent bitterness in future blog posts toward CNN was immediately obvious; I subscribed to his RSS feed shortly after the debacle and rarely have I seen such an unfettered dishing of dirt. Perhaps the most consistent message he pushed out to his growing readership was his theory that CNN really didn’t understand blogging, despite its constant “lip service” to the medium.
I asked Pazienza whether he felt he had crossed the line when it came to the sometimes-naked opinions he had published on his blog. He responded by calling objectivity an expletive, arguing that it’s only a perceived notion.
“There’s just been for a long time organizations that have been able to keep journalists on a tight leash,” he said. “They had control over how your reporters, your producers, your writers — how they were perceived by others. There wasn’t a way to make your opinion known to everyone via the Internet, and now you can. Before it was ‘don’t join a political party, don’t walk into a bar and start blabbing politics or anything like that,’ but other than that you can pretty much live your life as a reporter — you can lead your life and not have to worry about your readers knowing what your true feelings were.”
The former producer pointed out that a sizable percentage of the millions of college grads who are entering the workforce are doing so with lives that have already been well documented online, whether on social networking sites or blogs. Therefore, he argued, a media organization’s attempts to shutter someone’s personal life displayed online are futile.
“I wrote something awhile back where I said that one of CNN’s problems with its draconian policy is that unless they figured out a way to grow universal soldiers in a vat somewhere in Sweden for the next generation of journalists, if you go strictly by what they say in [CNN’s blogging] policy, they basically cut themselves off at the knees from having anyone new hired,” he said. “Because every kid that walks into that job now, that kid is on Facebook or MySpace or has a blog. His or her opinions are very well known.”
Pazienza did show some restraint while running his personal blog outside of work. He said that while working at CNN, he had made sure to refrain from ever identifying himself as a CNN employee on his blog. He also drew the line when it came to mining information gathered from sources and later regurgitating them on his blog; he felt that using company resources to fuel your blog content was unacceptable.
Publisher Ultimately Approves
Back in June, I emailed over 250 newspapers editors across the U.S. to ask them whether they would allow their own staff writers to maintain personal blogs. Of those who responded, 44 percent said it wouldn’t be permissible or that they would have strict caveats as to what subjects could be covered on such a site. But what was also remarkable was that most of the editors admitted that they had no formal blogging policy in place.
And what about my own experience of maintaining a blog while not disclosing it to my publisher? A few days before I left my last job at the Smithfield Times — for one that would require me to spend nearly every day reading and writing in blogs — the newspaper publisher mentioned off-handedly that he hadn’t even realized that I had a blog until three months ago. I recently phoned that publisher, John Edwards, to ask him how he felt when he discovered that one of his reporters had been writing a blog during his free time.
Edwards, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, argued that a reporter who covers a board meeting and then goes home and opines about it online would be engaging in the same conflict that would exist if an editorial opinion writer were to simultaneously write for the news desk — two departments that most newspapers keep separate. I asked if it would have been permissible for a reporter to write about non-beat issues and he replied that in most cases that would be fine. But he did say that disclosure of the blog to a publisher is also appropriate.
“And the only thing that ever troubled me with you is that I didn’t know about your blog for a long time,” he told me. I asked how he had found out about my website, to which he replied that my editor had alerted him.
“And what did you think when you found out?” I asked.
“I was surprised,” he said. “And then when I found out how successful you were with it I was very pleased. But I was very much surprised by the whole thing.”
And then I asked him the question that was on the tip of my tongue during our entire conversation, the question that had always been at the back of my mind while I was working for him: “So if I had come to you and said, ‘John, I have a blog that I write for. I only write on it during my nights and weekends and I never mention my workplace.’ What would you have said?”
“I would have wanted to read it,” he replied, and then paused for what seemed like a very long moment. “But ultimately I think I would have been OK with it.”
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate blogger for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.