One journalist’s reflection on what it means to give up the appearance of political neutrality in social media and jump into the fray.
I recently came out online. It was scary and frightening and I worried about rejection. I know that most of my friends already know who I am, but what about everyone else? Would they talk to me anymore? Would they unfriend me? Would my sources reject me?
I cared, to be honest. But I’ve held back long enough. I’m an adult. I should be able to be who I am, repercussions be damned. So I did it. Online, where everyone could see it.
I’m a liberal. There, I said it. Again.
Who cares, right? I mean, everyone on the Internet claims some kind of political bias. Isn’t it in every Facebook profile?
Yes. Except mine. Because I’ve been living in this other bubble, called being a journalist. And in the being-a-journalist bubble, you’re not supposed to admit to being liberal. Or conservative.You’re not supposed to be anything. You’re supposed to be basically a blank slate. The thinking goes that if you don’t say who you are, everyone out there will believe you’re nothing. You’re unbiased. You’re—dare I use the term—objective. (I stopped believing in objectivity long before most people who are reading this were born, when I realized that to most people, objectivity really means you agree with what I think.)
So for years I said “no” to petitions, kept campaign signs from darkening my windows, and by all means, I never—ever—went to a fundraiser. Those were the rules, written and unwritten, of journalism.
The irony is that the only rule I broke was actually coming out. I joined the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association when it was founded and publicly stated I was a member. If anyone wanted to know who I was, I made it easy. Surprisingly, few people looked (or cared).
It’s not that I ever believed that refraining from stating my opinion made me a better reporter. I’ve always believed that when I’m committing acts of journalism, my job is to rise above the fray. My job is to fairly represent various sides of an issue. If both sides praised my stories—or more to the point, condemned it—then I was doing my job.
When after covering California’s gay marriage controversy for USA Today, someone from the anti gay marriage side contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in working for her very conservative and presumably very homophobic organization, I was flattered.
It meant that my biases did not shine through.
But Facebook, Twitter and heck, social media in general, changed everything. I reluctantly accepted the new rules. The currency of social media is information about yourself. Lots of it. So I played.
But I held back. I never filled out the part of the profile that asked for “political views.” (Well, in a way I did. The answer was “Yes.” Cheeky.) My profile was both professional and personal. But when I left USA Today in December 2008, things started changing personally, professionally, and on Facebook.
I no longer had to pretend to be a blank slate. In fact, I started to feel that pretending to be a blank slate actually could hurt me. In the new journalism economy, opinions are expected and journalists are told to dive into the social networking fray, lest they be left behind. In this school of journalism, the blank slate concept of a reporter isn’t just passé—it has flipped.
The reporter is now a central figure who runs her own tiny media empire that includes Twitter, Facebook, blogs, a Tumblr, Instagram. A lot of journalists have made this transition neatly; a lot have not. For me, it was not that difficult to join in when it came to most things—I’ve been online since the Web began (OK, before) and was one of those wide-eyed zealots who thought the Internet would change the world. I loved it.
But always with that one caveat, that one hidden fact held behind the curtain. Would I dare to go all the way?
Slowly my opinions became clear in the way I was living my life. Obviously I was in favor of gay marriage, and was probably liberal. Then I went to a political fundraiser and actually gave money. That happened just a few months ago and God, that felt good. Still, I didn’t exactly broadcast it on Facebook. OK. I didn’t broadcast it at all.
Until the first presidential debate, I’d never publicly made my opinions known. There was still a tiny voice that whispered in my ear that if I did that, I’d be relinquishing the keys to the journalistic club—rational or not. I don’t know what struck me that night; just the fervor of the moment, I suppose. But sitting in front of the television watching these two titans vying for the position of the Most Powerful Man in our Universe, I felt compelled.
I started weighing in on Twitter. First I was waded in with a few retweets, but as I grew more frustrated with Obama’s dreadful performance, my tweets became more numerous. More obvious. I was, for the first time in my adult life, publicly participating in the discourse of democracy. I had an opinion and I was voicing it. Was I swaying anyone? It’s scary to think I might have. That’s stepping so outside of the old school journalism box that my heart starts fluttering even as I type this. It’s doubtful. I have not been tweeting much lately, so the few followers I have were probably not tuned in. Maybe I was flying under the radar, I told myself. I was being safe. But the fact is, I was flying.
For the second and third debates, I turned to Facebook, where I participate much more regularly. On Twitter, it felt like I was shouting my opinions, hoping for someone to listen. On Facebook, it felt more like a conversation. I updated my status, wrote on other people’s comments. And I watched the likes and comments roll in. We were conversing—however much that’s possible on Facebook.
That was it—I’d moved from the sidelines to the game. I was insider. An outsider all my life, it felt weird. And good. My fear never totally dissipated. I saw the typically less committal updates from my journalistic colleagues and wondered: was I stepping over a line from which I could never retreat? Could I go back and erase all my tweets, delete my postings and once again be welcomed into the club of fake objectivity? Would I even want to? I don’t think so.
Because I was being me. All of me, opinions, passions, and all. I was putting myself out there. I was risking looking like a fool. But I was risking. And that is what Democracy is all about. It’s about participating in the conversation. It’s about weighing in and making a difference. Even if it’s only to oneself.
When I first became a journalist, I thought I could change the world by revealing it to people. I thought when people understood each other, they’d all hold hands and share a peace circle. Well, not really. But close.
Over the years, I’ve realized that it doesn’t quite work that way. Sometimes information changes people. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the dialogue counts.
And maybe, at this point, people don’t trust journalists who stand back and pretend to have no opinions (because show it or not, we all do). Maybe me jumping in the fray actually makes me a better journalist, a more honest one. Or maybe it just makes me biased. All I can say is, it felt right.
Janet Kornblum is a journalist, writer, media trainer and, as you can see from her Instagram feed, is addicted to the visual. She also occasionally works for private investigators and was the Daily Dot’s first features editor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph by brdonovan
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