Can My Integrity Be Compromised By A T-Shirt?

Last month, Stry.us founder Dan Oshinsky wrote a story about Swagbot, a T-shirt company in Springfield. He had previously paid Swagbot to print custom T-shirts for the Stry.us team. Did he violate a big rule of journalism in the process?

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 23, 2012

Stry.us swag

If you read my June 19 story for this site — “Juli, Shawn and Their Absolutely Unmistakeable Swag” — then you saw this footnote about halfway down the page:

“Before I get any further into this story, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to mention that at this very moment, I am wearing a shirt made by Swagbot. I first came across Swagbot because of their custom T-shirt business. They made six custom T-shirts for myself and the Stry.us team, gray shirts with white lettering. On the back, they say, “WE FREAKING LOVE STORIES.”; the slogan and design of the shirt was mine. The shirts cost about $16 per, and I am wearing one of them right now. It is very comfortable.

“Again, this is the sort of disclosure that I cannot imagine Bob Woodward writing, but I want to make my potential conflict of interest known here.

“Juli and Shawn Matthews made me a T-shirt, for which I paid money, and now I am wearing this very comfortable shirt while writing a story about the Matthews’ and their business. I hope this does not bias this story in any way.”

The notion of bias — like everything else in the media realm — is changing. Generally speaking, it used to work this way:

  • You are a reporter.
  • If you have opinions, thoughts or any sort of conflict of interest with your sources, you are biased.
  • If you are biased, the public will not trust your stories.

So for decades, we’ve tried to remove all bias from our stories. We write under the banner of complete and total objectivity. Eliminate bias, maintain trust.

I’m not so sure that that’s the way of the future.

We all show up for work with our biases and thoughts and feelings. We have opinions; we’d be awfully dull people — and reporters — if we didn’t.

There is no sense in trying to hide these biases, I think. The public knows we have opinions, and it does us no good to keep pretending like we don’t.

I think media thinker Jeff Jarvis does a fantastic job on his blog of disclosing some of his biases. Look at this list — it’s almost absurdly comprehensive.

This brings us around to an idea circulating in journalism circles:


Previous iterations of journalism were about projecting authority and fairness. What I believe we’re moving towards now is a form of journalism built on authenticity, transparency and trust.

Here’s the question I think newsrooms should be asking: How do we explain our biases? And can we do it in a way that actually builds trust with our readers?

The best way for us to work with these biases, I think, is to:

  • Disclose biases where appropriate.
  • Try to put the sources first and our voices second.

Last month, MIT held a big journalism conference. One of the presenters, homicidewatch.org‘s Laura Amico, had some interesting ideas about the role of the storyteller:

I love that idea. It is the community’s voices we’re here to share, not ours. We’re just the filter through which the stories are shared.

Some personal thoughts or feelings or opinions might pass through that filter, too. I am not going to pretend like they don’t.

We, the Stry.us team, are human. We are not robot journalists. We tell stories in a human way, which means that our stories are painstakingly written and occasionally flawed.

You’re going to get some great stories from us this summer. You also might get a little bit of us in the process.

We are going to try to tell the best, the fairest, the most complete stories we can here on Stry.us. That is both our mission and my pledge to you.

That’s what I tried to do with the Swagbot story, and it’s what the team will continue to do with each piece we report this summer. Our goal is to authentic, transparent and trustworthy, and based on the overwhelmingly positive responses I’ve gotten so far to that Swagbot story, I believe we did our jobs there.

Agree/disagree with me on this notion of bias? Shoot me a tweet using the hashtag #onbias with your thoughts.