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In a fit of professional panic late one night, I surveyed the political leanings of my Facebook friends. How many supported Democrats? How many favored Republicans? Who had plastered their profiles with images promoting Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association?

It was late 2006, and I was a reporter covering politics in New Hampshire. When Facebook had opened to the pubic that fall, I’d joined mostly to keep in touch with my younger brother. Pretty soon, I’d accepted friend requests from many of the political operatives I’d met covering the 2004 elections. They weren’t my friends in a traditional sense, but I saw value in those connections. Still, I worried about how publicly linking myself to these people would affect the unbiased image I cultivated as a journalist.

I was reminded of that night earlier this year when the Associated Press released new guidelines for staff members sharing, or retweeting, information on Twitter. The rules, which are part of a broader social media policy, direct AP staffers to avoid repeating opinionated tweets without quotations, colons or another indication that the opinion belongs to someone other than the journalist themselves.

Within hours of the release of the new guidelines, debates were unfolding on media blogs, Facebook and even Twitter itself. But the discussion was about more than the AP’s policy. It revealed something most of us have known for years: There’s no such thing as an objective reporter. There never has been, and there never will be – except perhaps that computer that started writing sports stories last year.

The question facing digital journalists isn’t whether or not we have opinions or community connections. Journalists, like other human beings, have friends, families and personal experiences that shape the way we see the world. Our backgrounds influence the questions we ask and the types of stories we like to tell. What we’re struggling with is when (or if)  it is appropriate to disclose details about ourselves.

Sue Burzynski Bullard, an associate professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spends part of each semester coaching her students on proper use of social media. She tells them to consider anything online public and to ponder how they would feel if their tweet or Facebook post landed on the front page of the paper. Grammar and verification still matter, she says, as does the need to minimize harm.

The questions surrounding objectivity are important, she says, but not necessarily new.

“Well before social media and digital news, I realized the objectivity I was taught during the post-Watergate journalism school days was not completely realistic,” Bullard said via email. “As an editor in the newsroom…my background – as a woman, a mother, a Catholic, a first-in-the-family college graduate, etc. – all played into what I thought was an interesting story.  It made me a strong believer that none of us were really objective and that it meant we needed diverse voices around that table arguing for stories from different viewpoints.”

Yes, we’re all individuals, but most of us agree that the work we produce must be unbiased and should adhere to certain standards. The particulars of these standards vary among newsrooms, but the basics are the same:  Don’t make stuff up. Don’t steal other people’s work. Clearly attribute your information. Stay out of the story. Seek out all sides of a debate. Be accurate and fair.

Avoiding public disclosures of personal politics still makes sense for journalists working for news organizations with established brands. Readers can decide to trust—or decry—a publication based on its history, its ownership or its editorial philosophy. Though increasingly, journalists are brands of one, lone storytellers peddling their work online. Those independent voices may choose to share personal information as a means of building trust with readers. A growing number of bloggers and freelance writers publish information about themselves, their background and in some cases, the source of their income.

“I’ve inched toward the idea that if we’re transparent about our biases, we’re more credible than if we pretend we don’t have any biases,” Bullard said. “At the same time, I still wouldn’t want folks covering politics to declare their love or affection for any candidate – in a yard sign, on Facebook or in a Tweet.”

Rob Pegoraro, a former Washington Post reporter who now freelances about technology, draws an important distinction between personal opinions and personal involvement in a blog post about the new AP guidelines. Pegoraro compares the standard to The Prime Directive – a fictional, but useful, noninterference philosophy from the Star Trek universe.

“What makes us journalists is not some magical firewall in our heads that blocks after-hours contemplation of our reporting, but a willingness to look for evidence that disproves whatever theory we’ve been working on in a story,” Pegoraro wrote. “We fail our obligation to the truth not by developing opinions, but by letting them divert our research.”

Blog posts like Pegoraro’s, as well as the public debate to which they contribute, are important as we continue to understand what it means to be a digital journalist. Best practices for using social media and other tools are still emerging, and it’s important they evolve based on the experiences of the people who need them most. John Wayne Ferguson, a copy editor and graduate student at Boston University has seen how difficult it is for the industry to keep up with such rapid technological changes.

“It's hard, I imagine, to find people to teach the best practices of social media, when the best practices are still being defined,” he said in an email. “I think in a couple years, there might be more agreement about what works and what doesn't.”

Ferguson tweets regularly, but doesn’t use his account for official business. That may, however, be a function of his position.

“As a copy editor and paginator, I'm already a behind-the-scenes kind of guy,” he said. “I think I want my social media persona to stay back too. But, work-related or not, I try to source things accurately, favor the (retweet) button over retyping other people's tweets and to not spread rumors. I think I just naturally try to live by the same ethics I work by.”

It’s been five years since my midnight Facebook panic, but I still struggle with how to conduct myself online, especially now that New Hampshire’s 2012 presidential primary is underway. Some of the social media personas of the people covering the race areas are as prominent as the candidates themselves, and virtually every campaign and special interest group is reaching out to journalists like me over Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Some things are obvious: I wouldn’t, for instance, share my personal opinions about a candidate’s economic policy or decorate my profile with images from a special interest group’s website. Nor do I “like” Facebook pages belonging to campaigns or special interest groups. I visit those pages often, and have linked to them from blog posts when pertinent, but the term “like” is just a little too enthusiastic. On Twitter, I don’t follow the candidates. Instead, I group them into a list, as much for convenience as maintaining the appearance of neutrality.

When it comes to sharing information, things get trickier, which is probably why the AP wrote its guidelines for Twitter in the first place. Those of us who spend a lot of time on social networks know the culture, and understand that retweets or Facebook shares mean we found something interesting, not something with which we agree. That distinction might not be so clear to casual visitors to those networks.

It’s rare for me to retweet something directly from a candidate’s official account, but not because I fear it will imply favoritism. I want my Twitter feed to be a curated mix of the most interesting observations about politics, journalism and my community, a sort of high-tech reporter’s notebook. A canned statement from a PR guy seldom fits the bill. I also try to avoid posts dripping with sarcasm because Twitter leaves little room for adding context.

As for the political leanings of my Facebook friends, they were – and are – pretty diverse. And that’s the way I like it. Google and other search engines filter the Internet using keywords and algorithms. Social networks present information based on the personal interests and opinions of users. And, as a journalist, it’s my job to connect with and listen to them all. I routinely connect on social networks with people I’ve met in all sort of ways: at the yoga studio, in writing groups and through the political campaigns I have helped cover. My comfort with this might, however, have something to do with an evolving understanding of what it means to be connected.

Earlier this fall, The New York Times reported on a study by the University of Milan that examined relationships among the world’s 721 million Facebook users. According to the findings, we’re all separate {wc} by an average of just 4.74 people.

“We are close, in a sense, to people who don’t necessarily like us, sympathize with us or have anything in common with us,” Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell professor involved in the study, told the Times. “It’s the weak ties that make the world small.”

Meg Heckman is the online editor for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she has also worked as a reporter covering politics, government and issues related to aging and elder care.  She can be reached by email at mheckman32@gmail.com or on Twitter @meg_heckman.

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