Yesterday, in The New York Times, Clark Hoyt wrote an opinion piece about journalists who bring their personal lives into their writing. He cited two examples of writers who crossed the fine line at The Times: 1) a copyeditor wrote about a bad experience he had with Jet Blue and submitted it to the paper’s Complaint Box feature, and 2) a freelance writer recommended her boyfriend’s restaurant in a travel piece about Miami.
Critics called these two instances an abuse of power, and editors should have been more careful about publishing the pieces. Writes Hoyt:
Journalists cannot use the power of The Times, or any newspaper, for what can be construed as personal purposes. It is simply wrong to look as if you are getting even with a company, or writing a plug for family or friends.
What I’m interested in is the abuse of power issue. Journalists do have a responsibility to report the news to the best of their abilities, without adding their own personal agendas or manipulating information.
However, neither of the examples that Clark cited were “hard” news (”Politics, war, economics and crime used to be considered hard news, while arts, entertainment and lifestyles were considered soft news“) stories. The first story ran in a Times-specific feature that allows New Yorkers to vent about common annoyances like loud music on the subway or dangerous intersections. The second was a travel piece that listed recommended places to visit in Miami. Of course, both types of articles would have some bias, no matter how honest the reporting.
Without proper guidelines for its own features, the Times allowed a journalist to complain directly about a company. In the social media world, where everyone has the right to complain about companies, isn’t this only fair? Twitter accounts by brands like Zappos and Jet Blue exist for a reason – the people that manage these Twitter accounts are customer service or PR representatives that handle customer complaints.
Now, I don’t know the full story behind the aforementioned Jet Blue incident. However, if the journalist was telling the story truthfully, I’m not really sure what the big deal is! He could have done the same complaining all over Twitter and his own personal blog, if he had wanted to do so. If the Times is going to publish a feature called the Complaint Box, then I don’t really think editors should COMPLAIN about the complaints published there.
What’s so bad about power? Sometimes, what people deem an abuse of power is actually a daring move for the public’s good. Have you ever seen 7 On Your Side, a popular feature of televised ABC News? This segment provides a voice for people who have been swindled or cheated by companies; they report scams and empower individuals who are trying to get money or justice.
Don’t blogs give everyone power? I mean, if someone’s opinion is valid enough, and readers respect a blogger’s opinions, that blogger has power. Why do you think the FTC had to create guidelines for disclosure? Blogs are relevant now. In some cases, they can be just as relevant as The New York Times!
Anyway, this article brought up a lot of questions for me. When you run a publication, and you don’t have many resources, you have to speak to people you know and get sources from people in your immediate circles, right? There seems to be a very fine line between promoting friends and family and actually going to people you know or people in your community for information.
I’ve actually had some second thoughts about an article I wrote for Too Shy to Stop a month ago. I wasn’t sure if the article was appropriate to run on my website, and I didn’t know if I was compromising my integrity by doing so.
I wanted to write a piece about young people who expanded their professional networks by using a mix or online and real-life networking. My friend Sammy Davis was hosting an event to promote her business, and the story of her and her colleagues just seemed perfect for my piece. I did include information about the event, but Sammy did not ask me to write this piece for her.
Does this fall into the category of New York Times no-nos? I’m serious – what do you think? Should I avoid writing similar articles in the future? Should I set rules about this type of reporting? Do you feel swindled by the fact that I included a friend?
A lot of the other writers that contribute to Too Shy to Stop look to their immediate networks for sources. I don’t necessarily think this practice is a type of endorsement. I just think it’s looking to the community and sharing things from peers who are doing interesting things.
At the end of the day, no matter who we quote in our articles is gaining some publicity. This happens by chance, by the chance of the source being in the writer’s network. I’m just wondering where the line is crossed, especially within the arts beat, when a story consists of more story-telling and less reporting.
(Photo by justinbaeder)