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Should journalists hold opinion on issues?

Should journalists be allowed to have opinions? If so, when and where — and how — should they be allowed to express them? Such questions have been a thorn in the side of the traditional media industry almost since the web was invented, and they have become even more irksome now that Twitter and Facebook and blogs give everyone the ability to publish with the click of a button. Although it involved an open microphone rather than social media, the latest example of a journalist being fired for making an offhand comment is Yahoo’s former Washington Bureau chief David Chalian, who was dismissed for a remark he made about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But social media or not, the underlying question remains the same: why are we trying to pretend that journalists of any stripe are emotionless robots?

The Yahoo bureau chief’s comment came during the setup for a video broadcast by ABC News and Yahoo News during the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday. As an audio clip of the incident posted at shows, Chalian was talking to someone on the program about the interview that was to come — which was apparently going to touch on the damage being caused by Hurricane Isaac during the convention — and the Yahoo staffer seems to be encouraging this person to describe the Romney campaign’s lack of interest by telling them:

“Feel free to say: ‘They’re not concerned at all. They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.’”

Why do we pretend journalists don’t have opinions?

As Jack Shafer of Reuters puts it in a post about Chalian’s dismissal, “Yahoo counted to one and then fired [him].” The company quickly put out a statement apologizing to the Romney campaign, saying the bureau chief’s comment was inappropriate and “doesn’t represent the views of Yahoo.” Chalian himself posted comments on Facebook and on Twitter, saying he was “profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke.” Within hours, dozens of blog posts and news articles were warning reporters about the dangers of a “hot mic,” and how their personal thoughts or opinions can get them in trouble if they are not always on guard.

New York Times media writer David Carr argued that the incident highlights how difficult it is for journalists to try and cover something like a convention for multiple platforms like the web and television, saying reporters sometimes “fall into the crevices when trying to cross from one platform to the other.” But is that really the point we should be taking away from Chalian’s dismissal? I don’t think so — and neither does Shafer, who says that the real problem is the expectation on the part of media companies that journalists like Chalian will never express an opinion, let alone joke about something important. As he describes it:

“The journalistic orthodoxy… maintains that news reporters and news editors must not have opinions, or if they do, they must not state them.”

One of the things that is so frustrating about the Chalian incident is that the former Yahoo bureau chief wasn’t even expressing his own opinion about what the Romney campaign thinks about Hurricane Isaac, or the fate of black people. As far as I can tell from the audio, he was simply making a humorous suggestion about something outrageous that a person might theoretically say about the Romneys — I would argue that there’s virtually zero chance he actually wanted his guest to make the comment he referred to.

As Shafer points out, this kind of joking around is so common in newsrooms and anywhere journalists gather (courtrooms, stakeouts, etc.) that it is second nature for many reporters, and the more outrageous the comment is, the better. In some ways, the internet and social media are like one giant “hot mic,” making the likelihood that a journalist will broadcast such witticisms almost overwhelming. And Twitter also allows those with thoughtful — but controversial — opinions to be tarred and feathered as well, as former CNN editor and producer Octavia Nasr was for a comment she made on Twitter about the death of a Hezbollah leader.

Seeing journalists as human makes journalism better

In the end, this is about more than just whether journalists should be allowed to joke or not, or even whether Chalian’s comment reflected his real opinions about the Romneys. As more of what we call journalism gets done in public, whether via Twitter or some other social tool, we are getting more of a view into the process by which journalism is created, and it is often messy and all too human (which brings to mind the quote attributed to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “If you enjoy the law or sausages, you should not watch either one being made.”)

As I’ve tried to argue before, in writing about the blinkered social-media policies that media outlets impose on their staff — which restrict them from ever expressing an opinion about a topic they cover, and in some cases even about topics they don’t cover — trying to squeeze the humanness out of what journalists do is a step in exactly the wrong direction. We need to encourage more transparency rather than less, because there are so many sources of information now that the old “journalist as impartial oracle” approach, or what Jay Rosen calls the “View From Nowhere,” simply no longer works (and was a fiction in any case). As Shafer puts it:

“Reporters and editors have opinions, and sometimes they’re going to express them, much to their embarrassment and to the horror of their bosses, who want to pretend that everybody on staff resembles Lady Justice blindfolded, holding a balance.”

If anything, journalists who are not afraid to show their human side can actually be more effective, and National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin was a great example of that during the uprisings in Egypt and Libya. It’s also why I think it’s better in many cases for fact-checking to be done in public. Are some journalists going to say offensive or even stupid things? Of course they are. Everyone does. So should a single remark that someone makes on Twitter, or over an open microphone, disqualify them from ever being able to practice journalism? Even a veteran newsman like Sam Donaldson doesn’t think so. Why does Yahoo?