When Sharing Your Story Interferes With Telling Others’
Kate Woodsome | Washington DC
[Ed. note: Kate Woodsome is a VOA multi-media journalist covering U.S. immigration and rights movements from Washington. You can connect with her here on Twitter.]
While the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether or not to support same sex marriage, Facebook turned red. Countless users changed their profile pictures to a red square with a pink equal sign ( = ) in the middle, a symbol of the gay rights movement.
I have an opinion on this issue. Most people do. And for a few hours, I posted it on Facebook, where I’m connected to a relatively small network of 362 “friends.”
In those few hours, I lost something. In the journalism business, we call it objectivity.
I don’t know a single journalist who doesn’t have personal opinions, but it’s our job to conceal them when we’re on duty and, increasingly, when we’re off duty but online.
Whether it’s gay rights, human rights, murder or rape, the quality of our work is judged by the neutrality of our reporting.
Just the facts, ma’am.
There is no other issue in recent history that has tested this more than same sex marriage.
As conflicted as this country is over gay and lesbian rights, journalists are conflicted over whether social media is a personal or professional space for public or private discourse.
After I posted my opinion on Facebook, my stomach began to ache and the muscles in my shoulders tightened up. I emailed friends and colleagues asking what they thought about my decision.
I suffered the same anxiety at my first newspaper job in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I covered labor unions and found myself sympathizing with the garment factory workers being shocked by riot police wielding electric batons. I didn’t know if I was unprofessional for having feelings.
My editor told me, “We’ll see how your story turns out.”
A decade later, I rely on the same test.
It’s harder now because media is social. Private is public. Journalists are encouraged to have personalities without having opinions. Not everyone strikes the balance and, as the Poynter Institute for Media notes, not everyone has to.
The Huffington Post turned the “H” on its Twitter and Facebook avatars rainbow-colored in support of gay rights. The Voice of America flew its original colors. To preserve our professional integrity, VOA’s social media policy demands we muffle our opinions on controversial issues, even on our personal Facebook page, because “privacy policies change and people can take screenshots.”
Once upon a time, I would have sat around the dinner table with friends and discussed gay marriage and the state of the world. Today, my friends are scattered around the world and our table is Facebook. We debate in a room strangers can peer into, even when we think we’ve pulled the blinds.
Still conflicted with my actions in the virtual world, I ventured out of the office, past the U.S. Capitol building and to the Supreme Court, where activists on both sides of the issue were camped out.
I walked past signs that read “Marriage Equality” and “Say No to Same-Sex Marriage.” I listened as a woman called a man a bigot for opposing gay rights, then heard the man defend his right to support traditional marriage.
I stopped to take photos, and a man walked up to me and asked me why I was there.
“History’s happening,” I said. “I just wanted to see it.”
“Me, too,” he said. “Just think, 46 years ago this same court was deciding whether blacks and whites could marry. Just imagine where we’d be if they went the other way.”
If I had been holding a sign for or against gay marriage, he might not have spoken to me. If we lived in another country, he might not have spoken at all.
I went home and turned my Facebook profile picture into a patch of white. A blank canvas.
I became a journalist to tell other people’s stories. As much as this country is changing, online and off, that mission is not.