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Summary:

Twitter has claimed the job of another journalist, this time a CNN editor who expressed sadness over the death of a Hezbollah cleric. Her departure is the latest sign of the how traditional media continues to struggle with social networks and their impact on journalistic objectivity.

Twitter has claimed another journalist — this time a senior editor at CNN, and a 20-year veteran of the news network. Octavia Nasr agreed to leave the company after she posted a message on Twitter expressing sadness over the death of a Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, which is designated by some countries (including the U.S.) as a terrorist group. Although other journalists have lost their jobs for things they posted on Twitter and other sites, Nasr is probably one of the most high profile to leave for something she tweeted, and her departure is likely to reignite the debate over whether journalists should share their personal opinions on social networks.

In a message posted on July 4th at 4 a.m., Nasr — who contributed to the network’s Middle East coverage — said that she was sad to hear of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah’s death, and that she respected him as “one of Hezbollah’s giants.” A CNN spokesperson said that her comments were “an error in judgment” and that they “did not meet CNN editorial standards.” Ironically, Nasr was described in her online biography at the network as “a leader in integrating social media with newsgathering and reporting.”

Nasr said in a blog post that her comment was misinterpreted, and that she didn’t mean she agreed with everything the Hezbollah spiritual leader believed about Israel. She also said that her experience “provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.”

Nasr’s departure is the latest example of the double-edged nature of Twitter when used by the media: its brevity and personal nature makes it the perfect medium for journalists to both report the news and express themselves, and allows them to connect with readers more easily than traditional publishing methods — but those features also make it the perfect weapon for pointing out what critics might take to be a journalist’s failings or personal foibles. And it is tempting for reporters and editors using Twitter outside of the newsroom to say the things they couldn’t say while they were busy trying to remain objective.

Even reporters and editors with the New York Times and Washington Post have succumbed to this temptation: the Times got some attention last year after reporters there posted comments to Twitter about an internal staff meeting, and the Washington Post drafted what some saw as an overly restrictive policy on the use of social media that eventually led one of the newspaper’s managing editors to cancel his Twitter account for fear of breaching them. And as more journalists start to use Twitter and other social-media tools, this kind of conflict is likely to become even more common.

The reality is that social media forces journalists to confront the fact that while many of them pretend professionally to have no opinions — outside of the op-ed pages — reporters and editors have plenty of their own views on the issues they cover, and those views can color the journalism they produce. In the interests of full disclosure, I agree with TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, who argues that allowing journalists to express their opinions is a positive thing, because then everyone knows where they stand, instead of suspecting hidden agendas.

David Weinberger, a former fellow with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has also argued that “transparency is the new objectivity,” and that readers can now make up their own minds about whether journalists are credible or not by looking at the sources of the news they are reporting, rather than relying on the notion of objectivity. “Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases,” he said in a blog post last year. “Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.” Transparency is also much more effective online because journalists can link to supporting evidence for their arguments, Weinberger said, instead of just relying on the principle of objectivity to buttress their opinions. “Objectivity,” he wrote, “is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

And now that most media companies are trying to engage in that new medium, they had better get used to some of the new rules — and that includes reporters who might express potentially controversial opinions on Twitter.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user cliff1066

  1. Twitter it turning itself as the number one place for finding priority news

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  2. Isn’t Objectivity for Journalist the white coat of the old medical profession. A sign of infallible. Or:

    1&&1 = 1

    while for any given set of people:

    1&&1 ~= 1||0

    Or if the typical objective political article is:

    Subjectivity[l-5] + Subjectivity[r+7] = Objectivity[r+2]

    Is that still objective or Subjective[r2]?

    Ok that’s enough fun for one night. Not to be taken to serious.

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    1. Thanks, Ronald — I didn’t quite follow all the math (English major) but I like the white-coat analogy :-)

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  3. your first sentence villainizes Twitter. everyone knows the way CNN runs its show. Nasr certainly knew it, too. it’s probably foolish to think that this wasn’t a last straw situation.

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    1. It may have been a “last-straw” situation, Steven, but I still think CNN and other media are fighting a losing battle. The genie has escaped and they are trying to stuff it back in the bottle. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. Hi, Mathew. Jay Rosen has posed some interesting questions about the future of objectivity, and we’ll be chatting with him and Dave Weigel (who faced his own challenges with it at The Washington Post), today at 1 p.m. Love to have you in that conversation: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=186467

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    1. Thanks, Julie — that sounds like a great discussion. I will definitely do my best to be there.

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      1. Great, we’ll watch for you. And if we neglect to bring up Nasr & CNN, I hope you will.

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  5. BULL!!!! TWITTER SOLD OUT ITS USERS TO A FED INSTITUTUTE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, WITHOUT EVEN WARNING THEIR USERS FIRST!!! THAT EVERY WORD THEY SAID IS FEDERAL RECORD!!!!
    DID THEY GIVE US AN OPT OUT??? NO!! WARNING??? NO!!! FUNNY THEY CANT GIVE US OUR OWN, OLDER TWEETS CLAIMING NO RECORD, YET THEY GAVE EVERY WORD..TO LOC!!!! FROM DAY 1??? SURE!!!!!
    NOW THEY HAVE CLOSED DOWN REQUESTS FOLLOWS TO FORCE PRIVATE ACCOUNTS OUT TO BE PUBLIC TO CONTINUE TO OPERATE AS BIG BROTHER FOR THIS GOVT!!!!!

    THEY PLAY BOTH SIDES!!!! FEDTWIT DO YOU STILL RECORD ALL OUR TWEETS?????? THANKS FOR STEALING THEM AND TELLING US,,,,,,,AFTER YOU ALREADY DID IT.

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  6. [...] If your employer thinks your tweet compromises your credibility, you could lose your job, especially when there’s a political agenda.  An experienced CNN journalist loses her job. [...]

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  7. BULLLLONEY,

    Uh, it is the Internet. Pretty much anything is fair game, whether we like it or not.

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  8. Like FOX News, The Economist rarely separates the subjects they reporting on from their views about them, so clearly, opinion per se is not what makes one a reliable authority, and the other a dangerous embarrassment.

    But if opinion – good or toxic – is theoretically beside the point, shouldn’t a truly worthwhile outlet be able to do without it entirely?

    Perhaps, but assume for a moment that reporters aren’t necessarily commercial shills or partisan hacks with devious agendas, and trust that many actually see in life a level of irreducible complexity that eludes easy answers, and demands multiple perspectives.

    Then consider the possibility that political bias (which we all share to an extent) can be far less influential than other characteristics of viewpoint (e.g. being basically Assertive or Inquisitive.)

    Continue by asking yourself “who is likely to provide me with a more complete, accurate, and reliable set of facts? A reporter who I happen to disagree with politically, but whose opinions I’ve seen evolving? Or one who shares my sentiments, but whose rigidity of thought suggests they only see what they want to see?”

    The answer should be obvious. The problem comes from news organizations that make a policy of stripping any signs that help you distinguish between the work of one and the work of the other.

    A useful news organization would focus on cultivating a smarter and more open-minded staff, encouraging its members to challenge firm but inaccurate pre-conceptions in cases where they can do more harm than good (e.g. “Housing won’t go on appreciating forever, here’s why Wall St. wants you to think it will, and here’s what your legislators have to say about all this.”)

    Instead, shops like CNN seem hell-bent on dumbing down their viewers by stripping their stories of anything about which reasonable people could disagree, or that distracted people could misunderstand. Then they fire people whose public opinions imply that constant oversimplification is a greater hazard than genuine complexity, and that frictionless access is more important that uncomfortable truth.

    Happily for the rest of us, their cratering ratings suggest they’ve chosen badly. Still, it’s a shame. Once upon a time, they could have been great. And useful.

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  9. hal fischer Friday, July 9, 2010

    The whole notion of objective journalism is such a canard. If Twitter helps end it, so much the better. For whatever reasons, people enjoy using Twitter as a realtime stream of commentary, and, for whatever reasons, it actually seems to engender candor and honesty. I feel sorry for Ms. Nasr. She had a right to respect the old mullah whether or not I agree with him or her for that matter. CNN’s decision to fire her is no surprise.

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