Claiming to be unbiased is a patronising fairytale, so let’s just own up to our agendas

In this guest posting from Sydney’s media 140 conference Cathie McGinn argues there’s no such thing as total objectivity, so better to disclose your agenda.

Thankfully, at least some of the debate at this week’s Media 140 moved on from fixating upon the rather tired blogger vs. journalist issue.  

It’s a positive sign that the conversation regarding online content is not entirely bogged down with the rather meaningless question of whether or not bloggers and other ‘non-journalistic’ content creators are entitled to express their opinions with authority or whether their content is valid or reliable.

What is clearly becoming much more of an issue is the subject of authenticity, rather than objectivity – there’s a shift towards an inherent admission of bias and agenda on the part of any content creator.

It can seem rather suspect when journalists and editors claim to have no bias, especially given the large percentage of content sourced from PR agencies and the fact that newspapers survive on advertising dollars.

The new proposals in the US compelling bloggers “to clearly disclose any ‘material connection’ to an advertiser, including payments for an endorsement or free product” are indicative of the groundswell. Can the day when journalists will also need to declare an interest more explicitly be very far off, or is it the case that independent producers are on the rise because of growing disillusionment with heritage media’s ethics or lack thereof?

Personally, I’d rather see content like “I wrote this article because an brand sent me some excellent schwag” than a hollow attempt to position the neutrality of the journalist. Owning up to bias contains far more integrity than positioning oneself as incorruptible, which risks feeling like you’re telling an increasingly savvy audience a patronising fairytale. The implication that the very fact one works for an established publication means one is above reproach is also rather specious logic, and audiences just aren’t buying it any more.

The fact that an entire session at Media 140 was devoted to ethics was telling. Whether you call yourself a blogger or a journalist, transparency and disclosure are necessary for every interaction in the social web.

Whatever your personal ethical standpoint, the consensus from all Media 140 panellists was that this isn’t up for debate. It’s not a volitional code of conduct because stringent peer review means content makers simply can’t avoid it. Not only are journalists hardwired to track down inconsistencies and expose subterfuge, it’s often the favourite pastime of bloggers to ‘out’ phony or inauthentic behaviour.

Guest speaker Malcolm’s Turnbulls’ admission than that he doesn’t write all his own tweets was greeted by a ripple of disapproval throughout the Twittersphere. Somewhat cagily he claimed it was often hard to tell which updates were his and which were his “Twitter assistant’s.” The ABC promptly covered the story, and shortly afterwards, demonstrating his excellent grasp of interaction on the social web, he responded with a change in his Twitter policy:

“OK, to be clear: if a tweet is not written or specifically okayed by me, the assistant twitterer will initial it – eg ‘TT for MT'”

This openness and prompt response has probably actually done more to enhance Turnbull’s reputation than if he hadn’t been ‘inauthentic’ in his use of a ghost twitterer in the first place. It was such textbook digital PR practice I actually found myself wondering rather cynically if he hadn’t engineered the entire scenario to that end.

It certainly reinforced the notion that trust and honesty are the only currency worth dealing in online. Getting it wrong is fine as long as you hold your hand up and correct the mistake. That does raise the ‘echo chamber’ notion and the possibility that we’ll all become incredibly narrow in our thinking, so fearful of groupthink censure we dare not take risks and become stagnant, but that’s another conversation for another time.

The debate focused on Twitter at the expense of other social networking sites and tools. For journalists and bloggers alike, the risks are that the value neutrality of Twitter means that errors and inaccuracies spread as quickly and easily as facts do. The onus is obviously on the author to carry out thorough fact checking, a practice which has never been simpler or faster. The days of scouring libraries and microfiche are long gone, so there’s little excuse for mistakes when you’re generally only two Google searches away from the data. And again, while we all make mistakes, in the spirit of honesty and openness, admitting them is crucial. Ensuring the reliability of a breaking news story is not always possible, but at such moments, the credibility of the author is all we have to go on. The voice vouchsafes the source.

According to Riyaad Minty from Al Jazeera, ( @riy ) there were only six people tweeting during the Iranian election who were verifiably in Tehran. Large numbers of people changed their profile location to Tehran as a gesture of support, which had the unfortunate consequence of making it very difficult to identify the authentic voices. But being able to identify those voices and having a trusted content producer like Al Jazeera lend its credibility to them made the message incredibly powerful.

Comments on the effectiveness of achieving democratic change by altering the colour of one’s avatar were notable by their absence.

And while the Twitter obsession risked ignoring some of the – in my view –more powerful social web content media like video – the message was clear. Regardless of the channel, as John Bergin neatly summarised, ‘it’s the authenticity of the message, not the medium through which it’s articulated.”


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