Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute asked the question that journalists have wrestled with since their profession became the social purview of the world at large:
One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.
Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?
This issue became an issue again when the Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweeting about the 2003 rape allegation against Kobe Bryant within minutes of Bryant’s death breaking as news. The paper eventually determined that Sonmez didn’t break any of its rules with her tweet, even though editor Marty Baron disseminated a memo that urged caution and restraint for Post staff in the future.
As Jones pointed out in his piece, this isn’t a new thing for media folks. Veteran sports journalist Jemele Hill found herself in the middle of a social-media controversy back in 2017when she called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and got tagged with a two-week suspension from ESPN. She left the network in 2018 and joined The Atlantic, noting it was a place “where discomfort is OK.” Back in 2013, PR practitioner Justine Sacco found that a single tweet could destroy a person’s life in less than a day. Even after more than a year, Sacco was unable to live down her tweet. It took several more years for her to eventually recover from that single moment.
(This isn’t even just a “media professional thing” in terms of social media leading to concerns in other parts of life. Ask Roseanne Barr, umpire Rob Drake, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, Elon Musk or any one of a dozen other folks about how social media posts led to ramifications in other parts of their lives.)
Journalists traditionally believe in several key tenets that make life difficult when it comes to this idea of public vs. private person in social media communication:
- They value openness, which means they don’t want to be silent on a topic that matters to them, hide information or allow themselves to be censored.
- They value the sharing of information with interested audience members.
- They believe in being involved in stuff, so when something is happening, they feel the need to chime in.
- They like to produce content, and in most “traditional media” formats, they don’t get (or have to listen to) audience feedback.
Take all of this together and you’ll realize that it’s not all that hard to see why journalists end up on social media a great deal and why it is they have trouble with their employers after a tweet goes bad.
The rules that dictate what they can or can’t they do versus what should or shouldn’t they do is kind of a random mishmash of media company norms, HR memos and a desire to stop audiences from freaking out. Jones notes:
Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”
In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.
Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?
Sort of, but not really.
Here is why Baron’s memo, Jones’ reaction and social media policies in general fall short in splitting the baby between allowing journalists to interact with the audience and a desire to prevent chaos and dystopia from reigning supreme in the Twitterverse:
You Can’t Entirely Know Your Audience: Great reporters used to know their audiences like the backs of their hands. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and their ilk prided themselves in knowing “their readers” and being great at delivering things to them that mattered. Folks like that existed in many publications, I’m sure. (George Hesselberg and Pat “Snoop” Simms, both formerly of the Wisconsin State Journal, are two folks I got to know who had that finger on the pulse of the readers as they wrote their stories and columns.)
Many reporters, however, relied less on the audience needs and more on the news values or interest elements associated with journalism education to drive their approach to content. Even more, the idea that we would stoop to going through “market research” to figure out how we should cover certain things or what we should cover was an affront to some folks that saw this as an impingement on their freedom of the press.
Today, we have more data than ever to help us figure out where our clicks come from. (The Dynamics of Writing would like to give a shout out to whatever the heck “Han dot nl” is, as for some reason, it’s driving a ton of traffic to the site from the Netherlands.) We know which posts draw the most clicks, the most likes and the most shares.
That said, we still don’t know our actual audience and here’s why: Once the content is out of our hands, we have no say over what happens to it. What we think is OK for “our audience” doesn’t matter in some cases, because other readers out there can still access it and will still freak out over it.
Case in point: I generally curse in every day life, knowing that most of the people around me are used to it. When I started this blog, I was asked by SAGE to eliminate “unnecessary curse words,” as some of the people who buy the book and read the blog go to far more conservative universities, religious colleges and places that generally have more couth than I do. I tamped that down (as best I could) and stuck with only “necessary cursing” to meet the needs of my audience.
That said, I have no idea at all why people in the Netherlands are consistently reading this blog. For all I know, I might end up having the gendarmes after me (or pikemen or whatever…) for violating some sort of social concerns I don’t know about. I’m glad these readers are here, don’t get me wrong, but I never started this blog with the idea of rocking the Dutch market. They aren’t my intended audience, but it’s not like I can do much to stop them from showing up or seeing stuff.
The larger point is this: If you send something out that you believe to be relatively appropriate to people you think are going to be reading it, you have no way of preventing it from going to a completely different group of people and having everything go to hell in a speedboat.
The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory of Private vs. Public: Journalists like to argue that their social media feeds are their individual, private personas as opposed to a public representation of their work as media practitioners.
In a vacuum, I get that, as there should be a separation between job-related life and life-related life for all of us. It gets a little dicier when you consider that in both their job and their social media lives, reporters are essentially doing similar things (sharing content) in similar ways (social media, typing stuff etc.). Still, we don’t give up all of our rights to be regular people just because we cover the news.
The bigger problem is that human beings don’t operate in a vacuum of life and we can’t always build an unbreakable firewall in our brains like this. We can’t “unsee” things or discount them based on the spheres in which they happen. This leads me to the theory outlined above.
Let’s say you’re driving down a fairly empty stretch of interstate late Saturday night and you blow a tire. You pull over to the only business with a well-lit parking lot: A giant “adult book store” or porn palace or whatever you want to call it. As you’re sitting there, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix your car, you see the principal of your old high school exiting the building. He’s carrying a giant duffel bag full of pornographic DVDs and an inflatable “partner” doll dressed like a Catholic school girl. He doesn’t see you, he gets in his car and he drives away.
Theoretically, you should be able to compartmentalize this: He’s a private citizen, during his off hours, doing nothing illegal, so what’s the big deal? You should put this away as one more interaction with him and ignore it as it relates to his work with the school and your interactions with him when you were in school.
In a practical sense, however, all you can think is, “EEEEEEEWWWW!!! PRINCIPAL JONES! MY EYES! MY EYES!”
Everything you thought about this guy is now cast in a completely different light. You start rethinking every comment he ever made about anyone in a different way. You also probably start washing your hands like Lady MacBeth with OCD, remembering the number of “high fives” you got from him as you walked down the hallways between classes.
Again, nothing illegal happened. Hell, you don’t even know if anything horribly sketchy will happen, as this could be part of a giant prank or a lost bet. However, that’s not going to make you feel any better about the situation.
Just because we pretend that a wall exists between the public and the private spheres for the benefit of trying to justify our choices to other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone will graciously make that same distinction once they see what you put out there. People decide how they want to see us based on what they see of us. Claiming something is personal or not part of our career or whatever doesn’t absolve us of the perceptual damage that exists in the minds of others.
A Case of the Man Keeping Us Down: The more journalists feel forces beyond their control are suppressing them, the more likely they are to push back on something. It’s a response learned from years of having people they report on saying, “You don’t need to know that” or “You aren’t going to get that.” It’s also probably hardwired into our genetics at some level, just like being nosy.
Policies like this one that seems to say, “We’re watching you” can lead journalists to feel that need to push back against it, even if they aren’t entirely interested in engaging in the behavior the policy dictates. In other words, even if I’m not a journalist on Twitter who feels it necessary to tweet about whatever is coming into my mind, the minute you try to stop me from doing so is the minute I’m going to be upset about it.
It also doesn’t help that the policies are fluid and lack a sense of “X actions = Y consequences.” Do I think that the timing of Sonmez’s tweet was particularly brilliant? No. Do I think the consequences were a bit much? Yes. Can I find a clear path through Barron’s memo or the WaPo policy that tells me who was right? Not a chance.
In some ways, this kind of reminds me of the old-school version of Catholic confession, in that it was never clear how the priest knew EXACTLY how many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” were necessary to demonstrate proper atonement for each specific sin. It seemed like a mixture of how upset the priest was, how penitent the confessor was and how much time was left before mass started.
When my job (or my eternal soul) is on the line, I guess I’d like a little more clarity on how the rules apply and how I should know that I’ve got things nailed down appropriately.
Just like anyone else, journalists are going to be judged on their statements in a public setting and like a whole lot of folks, we tend to think our opinion needs to be shared with a lot of people in a public way. Since social media allows EVERYONE to play, it can be difficult to tell people who share opinions and write publicly that they can’t play or that they have to follow different rules.
Like most other things we’re all grappling with in this field, things are more likely to be messy than easy as we figure out what we SHOULD do after we bump into a lot of things we probably SHOULDN’T do.