Reuters To Reporters: Don't Be Transparent

by Frank on March 13, 2010

Earlier this week, Mashable posted a summary of Reuters new social media policy for its reporters, with a good analysis.

The part that stuck out to me was the part about bias: In essence, Reuters is advising its writers “don’t let people see your biases.”  Now, I’m sure there’s a worthy debate somewhere about whether the media is biased (I see the bumper stickers all the time), and how or whether that bias affects how the news is reported.

Shooting the Messenger

The struggle that Reuters and other print news agencies are struggling with is much bigger than simply, “is Google a vampire.”  It’s an entire worldview shift, and the result is illustrated perfectly by Reuters’ social media policy.  The assumptions and values that social media represents are exactly antithetical to the assumptions and values that print media has operated on for literally centuries.  The traditional view is one in which the reporter acts as objective observer, simply reporting what she sees.  The idea is that the press corps acts as an extension of me, enabling me to be part of the Health Care Debate in Washington, March Madness, and the elections in Iraq without leaving home.

However, with the internet providing more information to each of us each day than we can possibly process, this model is fast becoming a relic.  Call it postmodernism or cynicism or whatever you want, but McLuhan’s principle that “the medium is the message” is proving itself out in that the source of the information is increasingly becoming part of the message itself.  The credibility of the message is being judged in part by the credibility of the messenger. To reverse an old cliche, we’re increasingly ignoring the message because we don’t like the messenger.

Avoiding Transparency Is Lying

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was lambasted when he infamously replied to privacy advocates that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Because he’s the CEO of Google, who knows more about me than I probably know about me, this would not have been so widely criticized.  The values behind his statement are pretty widely accepted, and not just online.  For example, if a process is not transparent, we rightly assume that someone is benefiting from the lack of transparency.  This goes for politics, for corporations… and for the news media.  If you are very secretive, I think you have something to hide.

In its policy on social media, Reuters is missing the point.  They’re telling its journalists to avoid transparency in social media, when transparency is the point!  Social media is about letting people see the man behind the curtain.  Sure, don’t post your address and when you won’t be home out where everyone can see, but telling me you’re a lifelong Red Sox fan, for example, or that you have an unhealthy obsession with Twilight – these things help me to trust (or not trust, as the case may be) what you say about a topic.

Revealing Your Biases Builds Trust

Whether you’re a business, a news agency, or an individual, when it comes to social media, revealing your biases is part of the value.  Any rational person knows you’re biased.  You have opinions, a history, and those color how you interact with me.  There is obviously a cost to revealing those, which Reuters is trying to minimize or avoid altogether.  But there’s also a benefit: if I see that you’re not hiding information from me, I trust you more.

The medium is (at least partially) the message.  Your message is not independent of you, and if I don’t trust you, then I am far less likely to trust your message, either.  So when building your brand – corporate or individual – don’t be like Reuters and fear transparency.  Embrace it.

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