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Reporting online requires walking fine line on objectivity

July 2, 2010

Photo by Marlon Scott

By Sara Patterson

As reporters utilize social media tools to supplement print reportage, questions of online personality and journalistic objectivity abound.

The young sports staff from the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, shared a fresh perspective with veteran reporters attending the Mid-America Press Institute sports seminar June 28.

The panel of 20-somethings, led by newly minted sports editor Chris Korman, talked about generating online-only content to connect with readers and engage the web community.

From live blogging during games to tweeting breaking news and posting quirky post-game videos, the trio strive to keep print standards high while tacking on additional roles for reporters with new media applications.

The Herald-Times Web site’s print-edition content was placed behind a pay wall in 2003, so reporters and editors use video, blogs and chats to fill the site with free content. Since 80 percent of the site’s hits come from non-subscribers, Korman said they try to cater to both audiences.

Korman’s crew has been using Cover it Live technology to live blog during games and can have 500 to 3,000 people looking on.

“We try to stay away from having an opinion, but (online involvement) can call your objectivity into question,” said sports writer Dustin Dopirak, 28. “You end up having to justify what you do as you start to have a relationship with the readers.”

Inevitably, readers start to ask for the reporter’s personal opinion in the online forum, and it becomes a fine line to tread.

“A lot of the time, fans don’t know what our standards are,” said Korman, 28. “They have every right to think when they come to our site that they are at a fan site, and people just don’t know what our objective is. But this is also a chance to explain to the readers where you are coming from.”

High school beat writer Hugh Kellenberger, who has 622 followers on Twitter, was one of the first at the Herald-Times to embrace the social tool. He said he has learned to approach with caution.

“My no. 1 use of Twitter is to link to the content we have going on the Web site,” said Kellenberger, 26. “(Twitter) opens up a new line of communication. It used to be that the crazies would just send reporters e-mails, but now it’s become part of the public forum. Now they demand a response.”

Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg said the paper has an established social media policy for its employees, but it mostly dealt with transparency. He encourages his young staff to continue their trial-and-error approach to new media.

“When the day comes to make some money on these things,” he said,” we want to be in the position to do it.”

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