When you’re choosing tools to help journalists make ethical decisions, conversations work better than rules.
Washington Post co-managing editor Raju Narisetti probably wasn’t exercising good judgment recently when he tweeted opinions* about health care and term limits. But he really exercised bad judgment when he closed his Twitter account. And it appears that his boss and colleagues have compounded that error with more bad judgment.
Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander blogged Friday night about the Post’s new social media guidelines.
I have looked online for a copy of the guidelines, which apparently have not been posted yet (Alexander did not link to them). So I will hedge this post by saying it’s a reaction to Alexander’s blog and a few tweets about the blog. I have emailed Alexander and will email other Post staff members and leaders, asking for a copy. I also tweeted asking if anyone had seen it (apparently not). I will comment further after I see the policy. But Alexander’s blog described a misguided process that deserves immediate comment while I’m waiting to learn more.
Heather Harris of the Post marketing department tweeted at New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, “If you wish you knew more, perhaps you should wait before you say something…” I do wish I knew more, but I know enough from Alexander’s blog to discuss the serious problems I see here.
I’ll start by agreeing that Narisetti’s public statements of opinion on Twitter are a valid concern for the Post’s editors. As I noted in an earlier post about the Wall Street Journal’s misguided social-media ethics policy, traditional newspapers can be too uptight about personal expression of opinions. Still, when I was editor of The Gazette and a member of the editorial board, I avoided expressing political opinions (I still voiced strong opinions about journalism and media-business issues) in tweets, feeling my column was the appropriate place for any political opinions.
I disagree, though, with the notion that you need a detailed policy to address these concerns. I disagree with the solution that one of the few senior editors using Twitter would stop because of the policy and the concerns. I am amazed that editors who don’t use Twitter would make decisions about how their staff should use it. And if the result of this policy is less use of Twitter by Post editors and staff, rather than more, I am quite sure it will harm, rather than help, the Post’s journalism.
Here are the only excerpts from the policy that Alexander quoted:
“When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.”
“What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account. It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don’t want something to be found online, don’t put it there.”
“Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”
Those are sound statements of journalistic principles. But they tell more what you shouldn’t do than what you should do. And Washington Post editors and staff should use Twitter a lot more and a lot smarter than they do. Each of those principles could be handled in conversations and workshops about using Twitter more to gather information and engage the community, rather than set in stone in a policy that will come off to too many staff (as it did to Narisetti) as: “Don’t use Twitter.”
What’s most egregious about the policy is that Milton Coleman, senior editor, has been working on it since May, but not till this week had anyone discussed the issue of opinionated tweets with Narisetti. Peter Perl, the editor who oversees newsroom personnel, told Narisetti this week about that concern. Narisetti discussed the issue with Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli. The guidelines were announced to the staff Friday by Brauchli. Here’s the amazing thing: With Narisetti’s withdrawal from Twitter, none of those four editors has so much as a Twitter profile (unless they’re not using their real names, which would raise another ethical issue). And the only one who knows anything about Twitter from firsthand experience apparently didn’t contribute at all to the policy. (I will presume that Coleman and Brauchli, who appear to be the decison-makers here, have read Twitter on occasion, but you don’t truly understand Twitter as a spectator.)
The Post has lost several outstanding leaders and journalists from its once-great digital operation in the past couple years. It can’t afford to be making decisions in ignorance in the important field of social media. It’s mystifying that the Post ignored all the reaction to the Wall Street Journal’s ill-advised social media policy earlier this year. If Coleman started working on this policy in May, he had an opportunity to learn from the feedback many journalists gave to that policy.
Twitter is a conversation that the Post should engage more fully. Perhaps Narisetti should have been encouraged to be careful about voicing opinion. And certainly he should have been disabused of his notion that his tweets were private (apparently, though Alexander doesn’t say this explicitly, he tried to keep his tweets private, rather than opening them to anyone to read). But the discussion with Narisetti should have encouraged him to open his tweets and to seriously engage the community.
Brauchli and Coleman should start using Twitter and lead a conversation with staff members who are experienced in Twitter. They can address these concerns in the discussions, while also learning about the value of interacation and the importance of using Twitter in covering breaking news. If guidelines are necessary, they should flow from the consensus in those discussions, instead of coming down in such imperial fashion from editors who don’t understand social media.
Post staff reaction
Howard Kurtz, Post media reporter/columnist, and an active Twitter user, gave no indication he had any input on the new policy. In fact, his second tweet on the subject seemed to indicate, with humor, that he expected the new policy to result in bland tweeting by Post staff:
Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes.
Kurtz’s next tweet was more serious:
Actually, I always assumed you shouldn’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say in print or on the air. Diff betw having thoughts and being biased.
Chris Cillizza vowed to not to be deterred:
Also, lots of question about the Fix Twitter feed in light of new Post policy. This feed will KEEP ON ROCKING
The NYT has a far more engaged and lively Twitter presence than the WaPo & it hasn’t compromised NYT credibility. Why crack down?
Jeff Sonderman, metro editor and online editor for the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune:
How dare an editor have an opinion? Outlawed at the Post (at least in public): Objectivity or merely opaqueness?
Washington Post turns journalists into antisocial mannequins. So much for new connections to the community.
For bigger reasons than Twitter, I now fear for the future of the Washington Post.
Jay Rosen, another critic of print media’s use of social media (I don’t use “critic” negatively in describing Jarvis and Rosen; clearly I am also a critic of print media efforts, or lack of effort, with social media):
Looks like the Washington Post came out with new Twittering rules and didn’t go public with them http://jr.ly/uby9 If I’m wrong, lemme know.
Something is seriously “off” at the Washington Post; I wish I knew more about the culture to know what it is. For now: “the print guys won.”
I often check my perceptions against people who work there or used to, @dcgrrl. Perhaps you should push the Post to drop the Fortress thing.
Q. for Posties: On July 19 ombud said the Editor agreed to make the Post’s revised newsroom policies public http://jr.ly/ug4v Is that dead?
No, @Chanders, there is no known link to the Washington Post’s new social media policy, which tells you something about the policy, I fear.
Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy:
I would tweak WashPost Twitter policy: staffers can resume tweeting after taking advantage of company-paid lobotomy. http://bit.ly/3oVpdh
Hard to believe that WP was the leader in big-paper online innovation just a few years ago.
Not sharing anger over WaPo Twitter flap. Policies against mixing personal, professional are foolish, but IMHO it’s wise to eschew politics.
Kennedy, responding to Fry:
How about, “We’re glad you’re tweeting, it’s good for WP, but don’t indulge your political views”? Doesn’t sound too hard.
Fry, answering Kennedy:
I’d be all for that. “Leave politics and religion out of it. Otherwise, we’re happy you’re interacting, full speed ahead.”
Freelance writer Alan Mairson:
WaPo Twitter policy sounds like journo equiv of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Bizarre for people paid to ask & tell.
The more the “newspaper people” take control of Washington Post’s digital efforts, the more retrograde it becomes. Sad. Tragic, really.
If post reporters must refrain from any expression that reflects opinion or bias, what will editors do to fill the news hole?
More evidence that the old-style print folks have completely taken over WashPost editorial ops http://bit.ly/NRH1o what a waste
henceforth, editors who dislike the weather (or like it, for that matter) may not supervise reporting about it.
I have had dealings with four of the Post staff members mentioned in this blog post. When Andy Alexander was Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, he hired me to speak to an editors’ meeting when I was at the American Press Institute. While we aren’t close friends, we have stayed in contact since then and I think I recall sending him a congratulatory email when he was named ombudsman for the Post. We serve together on a committee of the American Society of News Editors.
Peter Perl and I have interacted on multiple occasions. He was a discussion leader for a seminar I led at the American Press Institute. We attended a conference for newsroom trainers at the Poynter Institute. We have emailed each other on several occasions and we’re Facebook friends.
Gene Weingarten and I have never met, but I have frequently cited his Pulitzer-winning feature Pearls Before Breakfast as a creative use of video and text together in storytelling. Gene connected with me on Twitter last year and has consulted me (though not quoted me by name) on two columns he has written about Twitter and one that I believe is in the works (we exchanged some direct messages last week). He sent me a thoughtful personal message earlier this month after the death of my nephew, Patrick Devlin.
I have encountered Milton Coleman at meetings of ASNE and we serve together on an ASNE committee (meeting by conference call), but we don’t really know each other.
I have followed Howard Kurtz on Twitter for a long time. He doesn’t follow me, and we have never met each other. Marcus Brauchli, Raju Narisetti and Chris Cillizzi have not had any dealings with me that I recall.
*What Narisetti tweeted
I didn’t want to slow the flow of my comments above by quoting Narisetti’s actual tweets. But here are the two Alexander quoted in his blog:
We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.
Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from “standing up too quickly.” How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.
I found it interesting that Alexander cited concern that the health-care tweet might fuel accusations of liberal bias (and that comments on the blog said it proves the Post’s liberal bias, as if one editor could prove any sort of institutional bias). Worth noting: Byrd‘s a Democrat.
One final point
Alexander’s blog says that the new guidelines cover “using Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks.” Twitter was the only social tool he discussed specifically in his blog and Twitter is the usual lightning rod for people who are uncomfortable with or ignorant about social media, so I focused on it here. Clearly, the Post should be discussing use of other social platforms as well as Twitter.