Guidance for journalists on expressing personal opinions

Jay Rosen first expanded on "the view from nowhere" in a 2003 blog post.

Jay Rosen first expanded on “the view from nowhere” in a 2003 blog post. (PressThink/Flickr)

A committee of Digital First Media journalists has discussed how journalists should share personal opinions extensively, aided by Advisory Board member Jay Rosen, who has written frequently about the “view from nowhere.” The group recommends these guidelines to help DFM journalists and newsroom leaders in deciding whether, when and how staff members should express, or refrain from expressing, personal opinions.

This is the second in a series of posts sharing the group’s advice to Digital First newsrooms, opinion pages and individual journalists. The group members are listed at the end of this post. 

Guiding values

Journalists and newsrooms should seek truth and report it.

Opinions are an important part of the journalism we provide for our community.

We must always seek to build trust.

Transparency helps build trust.

Journalists should avoid or disclose conflicts that may shape their reporting or opinions.

Recommendations 

Journalists should avoid statements of advocacy in all platforms except editorials and specifically labeled opinion content. However, advocacy is not the only type of opinion content.

With their editors’ approval and guidance, journalists who are sufficiently knowledgeable about topics should write with authority, which can include analysis, commentary and calling out false statements by politicians and other newsmakers. Journalists who may write with authority should do so in social media and broadcast appearances as well as on our company’s own platforms. Editors should consider whether such content should be labeled in some way to distinguish it from traditional neutral reporting.

A journalist may gain the ability to write with authority as he or she gains experience in the community or on a beat or a particular topic. Or a journalist with authority on a topic might start covering a different topic where he or she is less authoritative. Either the editor or the journalist should initiate discussions about whether the journalist’s level of authority has changed.

Our highest value as journalists and news organizations is to seek truth and report it. This means going beyond the faux balance of he-said-she-said stories to learn, document and state what is true. Once our reporting has established the truth of a situation, future reporting should repeat that truth, especially if newsmakers continue to repeat statements that have been documented as false.

For some staff members and some beats, editors may say journalists should refrain entirely from statements of opinion, either because the topic is so polarizing, because opinions in that area might jeopardize credibility or because the journalist is not ready to write with authority on that topic.

We generally encourage journalists to join debates within our profession on matters such as journalism ethics, innovation and whether and when journalists should express opinions. Statements of advocacy are acceptable in these professional discussions.

For most journalists covering news beats or editing general news, statements of opinion in social media and other platforms about matters of culture such as entertainment or sports are acceptable. Journalists covering those areas should discuss with their editors what level of opinion is acceptable. Conversely, journalists covering areas such as entertainment or sports might be freer than news reporters to express views on politics or local news. All journalists interested in expressing opinions in areas they don’t normally cover should discuss with their editors what is acceptable and what might be troublesome. Part of this discussion should be whether the journalist might cover the topics someday and whether these statements of opinion would jeopardize credibility.

Staff members should always disclose to editors when they have personal involvements or experience that might color their reporting or support a perception of bias. Editors and staff members should discuss whether such potential conflicts are serious enough to warrant reassignment. Where the conflicts are not significant enough to merit reassignment, editors should disclose the journalist’s involvement or experience to readers. Possible ways of disclosure might include an editor’s note or a first-person sidebar.

For staff members who regularly express opinions, we should consider a standing disclosure of experiences and relationships that may influence their views, such as Steve Buttry’s disclosure on his blog (which is more detailed than some journalists might need). This disclosure should be linked from the “about” page on a journalist’s blog.

DFM journalists should consider first-person writing in appropriate situations. If a journalist’s personal experience or perspective on a story would add to the reader’s understanding, journalists and/or their editors should suggest such an approach, possibly as a sidebar, a first-person main story, an accompanying video or blog post.

Staff members can and should be personable in social media, live chats and blogs regardless of what level of opinion is acceptable for them.

When journalists’ work prompts statements of from the public, such as in story comments or on social media, the journalists should engage in the discussion. If it would be inappropriate for the journalist to express opinions, it is still fine to respond in other ways, such as thanking readers for their comments or correcting opinion misstatements of fact.

We encourage discussions between staff members and their editors about when, whether and how journalists should produce commentary, write with authority or otherwise express opinions. One policy does not fit all DFM journalists or fit a particular journalist in every situation.

We encourage training and coaching on such matters as writing with authority, fact-checking and appropriate forms of opinion journalism.

These recommendations are the result of meetings by the following Digital First Media journalists (and advisory board members): 

  • Tony Adamis, managing editor of The Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y.
  • Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Mike Burbach, editor and editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.
  • Steve Buttry, Digital First Media digital transformation editor
  • Alicia Caldwell, Denver Post editorial writer
  • Angi Carter, Thunderdome curator (and New Haven Register community engagement editor when the group started our work)
  • Laura Cochran, Thunderdome features editor
  • Jeff Edelstein, Trentonian columnist
  • Mariel Garza, Los Angeles News Group opinion editor
  • Robert Gehrke, Salt Lake Tribune politics and government reporter and blogger
  • Phil Heron, Delaware County Daily Times editor
  • Mandy Jenkins, Thunderdome interactives editor
  • Barbara Marshman, San Jose Mercury News editorial page editor
  • Rick Mills, editor of The Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
  • Katy Murphy, Oakland Tribune education reporter and blogger
  • Karen Nolan, opinion editor at The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.
  • Chris O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News columnist (before he moved to the Los Angeles Times)
  • George Pyle, Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer
  • Martin Reynolds, Bay Area News Group senior editor, engagement
  • Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Robyn Tomlin, Thunderdome editor
  • Troy Turner, Thunderdome news editor (and editor of the Farmington Daily Times in New Mexico when this group started its work)
Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.