Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes has a thoughtful and timely piece on the new ABC site The Drum. Interesting that The Drum has run it, because it critiques the core premiss of that site – that ABC journalists can write “analysis” without breaching that part of Auntie’s Editorial Policies that prohibits the expression of opinions.

Now, this raises another issue on which I have blogged previously. That is, the extent to which a journalist’s own persona – what is distressingly known these days as their “brand” – is vital to their continued worth in the industry.  And related to that is the whole issue of objectivity, and what it means and how it is best understood in the new media age.

Previously, I have suggested that journalists should be very careful about agreeing to any conditions of employment that limit their ability to participate in social networking. I wrote:

Such a constraint gives a massive serve of power to the employer. Social networking is going to become one of the main ways in which people discover media content online in the future. It is also going to become vital to journalists, particularly freelancers, in building reputations and followings as the institutional media declines. Very soon now, a journalist without an active social network will be next to invisible.

The launch of The Drum, which rests on the promotion of ABC personalities, is an interesting case in point.  The ABC owns the platform, but who owns the personalities? Clearly, not the employer.

Star turn is Annabel Crabb, who was until only weeks ago with the Sydney Morning Herald. Crabb has built her profile through her witty columns, but also through social networking and use of Twitter. She owns her Twitter presence. It travels with her.

And the editor of The Drum is former Crikey editor Jonathan Green. While at Crikey, Green also developed a Twitter persona,  illustrated with an image of a suited frog, drawn by Crikey cartoonist First Dog on the Moon.

On Monday, Green announced his new job with the Twitter post “good morning, this is the ABC…”

Same frog, different employer. Green owns his online social networking persona, not Crikey and not the ABC.

It has always been the case that a journalist’s reputation was their main professional capital. And it has always been the case that reputation belongs to the individual, not to the employer. Social networking expands this. Now  personality has become part of the professional capital.

Those who attended the Media 140 conference last month will remember hearing Leigh Sales talk about the very calculated way in which she used Twitter and blogging to “diversify my brand”. Said Sales:

The trickiest aspect for me has been the desire to entertain.  My public persona prior to Twitter has been about as far down the pointy-headed end of journalism as you can get…  Let’s face it – on paper, I sound like I could bore for Australia. But I’d like to think that in real life, I don’t take myself that seriously.  I’d also like to think that it’s possible to be a serious, credible journalist and also display a sense of humour.  Although I don’t see those two things as incompatible, I wasn’t convinced that the more dour critics of the ABC would agree.  I could imagine the fun police saying that the host of a sophisticated program such as Lateline shouldn’t be posting tweets such as: “BBC: Study shows parrots like heavy metal music.  Polly want a Limp Bizkit”.

Now, there is reason for unease in all this. What happens to those of us who are not as witty or attractive as Sales? What about those who are crabby, rather than Crabb? Have the unattractive but worthy no place in this era of personal “brand”? And what happens to the undistinguished labourers in the engine room of journalism? Those who travel each day to the courts, to parliament, to council meetings and the like, their job merely to report and record without the injection of personality or quips?

And what does all this mean for objectivity? Well, it depends on what you mean by that term. If you equate objectivity with a journalist-as-robot depersonalised voice, then clearly objectivity is dead.

But that understanding has always been impoverished. As I’ve argued before, I think true objectivity lies in the process by which a journalist brings material to the public. It lies in having a hypothesis – even a point of view – and going out and seeking evidence, largely in an effort to test or disprove that hypothesis. It lies in going beyond personal prejudice and desire to seek out that evidence. Then it lies in the act of judgement involved in trying to convey the results of that process to the public with integrity and disinterest.

Interaction with audiences, even creation of audiences through the use of social networking, is rapidly becoming part of that process.

No journalist, in my view, should be prepared to give up the right to develop such relationships with their audiences on an individual basis. Their relationshiops, like their reputations, belong to THEM, not to the employers. 

None of which entirely answers Holmes’ concerns about the nice and possibly illusory distinction between analysis and opinion. Let’s be frank. The whole thing is a work in progress, and none of us is clear about where it is heading.

Objectivity, properly understood, is very much one of the things about traditional journalism that we should safeguard and preserve.   But let’s be clear about what objectivity means. It is not the same as balance. It is not the same as the reporter pretending they do not make judgements. And it certainly does not mean merely adopting a faux objective voice to escape responsibility for the judgements one makes. It means honest, disinterested and transparent processes. 

In this, journalistic use of social networking is quite possibly an asset. But there will have to be more to it than showmanship.

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