Managing the 'JMHOs'

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

There are times when personal opinion is valuable, and there are moments when it’s inappropriate. This balance with subjectivity stresses the importance of transparency in our media.

If we live in a world where everyone reports something, professionals have a particular onus to source it. The cold, hard fact is that cold, hard facts and personal beliefs are equally viable when adequately identified.

As a career military journalist, I see hidden subjectivity as an unprofessional trick. When journalists learn to write news, objectivity is our primary mandate. “You are not part of the story,” is something that I comment to newbie news drafts. If a reporter wrote, “The rain ruined the event,” I’d cross it in red, saying, “Said who? Did you ask the ducks?” If they wrote, “Considerable rain fell,” I’d ink in, “Rainfall total, per weather service?” Of course, reports carry significance greater than exaggerated weather.

Using “officials said” to hide subjectivity is often a get-out too, and you can find it in communications trusted by default. But that organizational trust is melting like a 2020 arctic glacier. Hold it; the glaciers are melting? By how much, and according to whom?

I think that information presented as fact without accurate reference weaken messages. For those trained to see it, it’s a sign of a personal agenda or idleness of research and interview. For commentary, however – well identified as such – subjectivity is a proper insight that supports audiences’ interests. It’s how you present your information. That’s the critical part. JMHO.

The Department of Defense celebrates opinion writers, as proven through its annual media awards. These op-eds come from all ranks. They don’t ignore the facts. Some are edgy, and some are passionate, but not critical. Their commonality is their clear identification that what they tell is a personal viewpoint.

I’ve seen an uptick of leaders communicating with such zeal during the pandemic. They use online forums in place of face-to-face conversations. Public Affairs offices, including mine, are supporting it. Our studio-dust is floating these days. But being transparent with information is imperative.

Always identify the facts from opinions. We can appreciate and trust bold leaders who tell us how they see it and inclusive leaders who connect us to it. But, avoid a murky message. If it’s your personal belief, own it. If it’s a fact, attribute it.

Promote attribution with subordinates and peers. Demand it from journalists because they should answer to strict ethics. Ask yourself, “Is this message subjective?” “Who is ‘they?’” “Who are these mysterious ‘officials’ sourced?” “Is the information a fact, an opinion, or is it ambiguous?” “Should it be in this context?”

Understanding all of this will help you to manage social media better. For example, it’s conceivable that your boss disagrees personally with wearing protective masks in the community during public health guidelines. Hence, their public social media photos of such actions are a statement in itself, “It’s proper to be without protective gear in close contact with coworkers, so long as you’re outside the office?” That’s the murky message: “Care for each other according to policy, but this is OK too.”

Then there’s sharing or liking subjective memes on the internet. Or commenting on shared news reports where the headline was only read. Did the commenter look at the report’s date, or let alone, read and understand its content? In these cases, be the objective editor.

Some opinions are best kept to yourself, maybe. Consider it; you do not need traditional media channels to pull the subjective fact trick. It could even be the absence of your message that’s subjective. Keep quiet until hot issues like racism cool down, but silence and weak signals are open to debate. Make it clear.

“According to this fact and this person, racism occurs here. I believe that racism is wrong. It is my personal and professional position that I will not tolerate it or anyone who inflicts it.”

Identifying our hidden subjectivity is essential to all of us. Its scope is not limited to polarized news. No rank or position is immune to the cause and effect of reported information, good or bad. Who. What. When. Where. How. And Why. Keep their sources visible, and let philosophers debate the quicksand.

(Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith is the Public Affairs manager assigned to the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in East Tennessee.)