Twitter panic in the newsroom
With the exception of a well-drafted libel suit, nothing fills the underwear of the modern newsroom editor with liquid panic faster than social media, especially Twitter. Having invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours to erecting sturdy news standards based on fairness and impartiality, they fear that one 140-character message by an editorial employee will ravage the entire edifice.
The panic-fluids ran hot over at NPR this week after a blogger on the network’s education team tweeted, “I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(” The blogger apologized, and to her credit did not place her tweet in the burn bag. Mark Memmott, the network’s Standards & Practices supervising editor, issued a memo to remind the staff of NPR’s social media policy, which he boiled down to this: “If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”
Personal comments on Twitter or Facebook “can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective,” Memmott wrote. Citing NPR’s Ethics Handbook, he asserted that “nothing on the Web is truly private,” and that even retweets were suspect — and to be avoided! — because they can be viewed as endorsements.
The Associated Press maintains a similarly restrictive social media policy, as the Poynter Institute’s Sam Kirkland reports, urging its staffers to avoid tweets or retweets that could be interpreted as expressing an opinion or approval. Nor does a disclaimer in one’s Twitter bio that retweets don’t equal endorsement provide any indemnity for an AP journalist. Similarly, Reuters warns in its editorial handbook of the threat social media poses to the company’s “hard-earned reputation for independence and freedom from bias.” Even clicking a “like” button can potentially compromise the company’s standards, it warns. “[B]efore you tweet or post, consider how what you’re doing will reflect on your professionalism and our collective reputation,” the handbook instructs.
Are NPR, the AP, and Reuters’s editorial reputations really so fragile that a 140-character tweet or retweet by a staffer can blow the whole thing down? I don’t think so. And neither does Philip B. Corbett, the New York Times associate managing editor for standards, who approaches the topic with comparative calm. Corbett holds that Twitter users understand that sometimes a retweet is just a retweet — that it “involves sharing or pointing something out, not necessarily advocating or endorsing,” as he explained it to Poynter’s Kirkland. Corbett still expects mindfulness from his staffers who use Twitter, but if I read him correctly, he just doesn’t think a thicket of rules and regulations serve the best interests of Times readers.
The advent of a new communications technology like Twitter plays hell with the editorial guidelines at news organizations because it gives independent megaphones to reporters who ordinarily couldn’t be heard unless editors stamped their approval on their copy and sent it to the wire, the printer, or pushed it over the air. I’m not a particularly prolific user of Twitter and I’m still knocking out tweets at the rate of 2,400 a year. If all 2,600 Reuters newsroom employees were to tweet at that rate, my bosses would have about 6.25 million tweets to sift and assess each year.
Not even the National Security Agency could police such a word blizzard, so how can we possibly expect editors to keep the vigil? Obviously, they can’t. Seeing as every tweet coming from a newsroom keyboard won’t be monitored, the enforcement of the rules in the handbook will end up being arbitrary and unfair. Punishment won’t fall on all journalists who type naughty tweets, just the ones who have a high enough profile to get caught. If I ran a pressure group, I’d monitor the Twitter feeds of the journalists I disliked the most to gather the Twitter “evidence” to spring a gotcha on them.
I’m not suggesting that news organizations turn a blind eye on staffer tweets. For instance, in 2012, the New York Times assigned a social-media “minder” to Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren after her impolitic use of Twitter and Facebook raised an international ruckus. And obviously you don’t want your reporters touting stocks on their Twitter feeds. You don’t want them libeling people. You don’t want them spewing racist bilge. But neither do you want to sew them into social media straitjackets that deter all expression. Such uniform and restrictive gag orders don’t expunge opinion from newsrooms, they only suppress it, and encourage journalists to find other oblique ways to convey their views.
The social media straitjacket also infantilizes experienced news consumers, who have plenty of experience judging journalism and journalists, and who benefit when reporters and editors can tweet what is on their minds and what they are reading without being handcuffed and charged.
If Philip B. Corbett and the New York Times aren’t afraid of tweets and retweets, why should NPR, the AP, and Reuters tremble so?
As an opinion columnist, I’m the lucky guy in the newsroom whose leash runs miles long as opposed the choke chains some journos have to wear. Send me a line — a miles-long line — to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Don’t follow my Twitter feed. It’s not that provocative. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos, in this picture illustration taken in Skopje September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski