Whenever there is a great controversy or conflict regarding the appropriate use of social media by the traditional media (in this case the journalists for the Washington Post) it’s important to look at several things. First, what is the subject matter that triggered the ‘discussion’ (which in this case is one of the one of the most volatile you can imagine: homosexuality). Second, where it was printed in the paper (in this case it was a column on faith so you can connect the dots there) and third is it about social media or about the subject matter itself?
Over at Mashable, the claim is that the Washington Post is making a mistake by shutting down interaction by its journalists on Twitter.
The Washington Post sent a memo to its staffers telling journalists not to answer critics from Post-branded Twitter accounts or to use their personal accounts to “speak on behalf of the Post.”
The memo comes after the Post published a controversial guest article online, “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of sexuality,” by Tony Perkins.
Here are some of the contents of the memo:
This week, some Post staffers responded to outside critics via our main
Twitter account. At issue was a controversial piece we’d published online. The intent in replying was to defend the decision to publish the piece, but it was misguided both in describing our rationale for publishing the piece and as a matter of practice. It shouldn’t have been sent.
Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.
Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: when we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor–and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do. Please feel free to flag Marcus, Liz and me when you see something out there that you think deserves a response from the Post. As we routinely do, we will work with Kris Coratti and her team to respond when appropriate.
The argument from Mashable reporter Vadim Lavrusik is that this response is archaic and spells doom for this kind of system because by not allowing dialogue through social media by reporters is ‘old school’ and doesn’t reflect the current social nature of news.
Of course, this varies from news organization to news organization, but this model is broken. It only reaffirms the old model of “we publish and you listen,” and a model that had a disconnect from the news process and the former audience. It is not a model of conversation and dialogue around news that has become increasingly social. Why not encourage reporters to have a dialogue around the news? Around the stories they cover, producing and giving more transparency to the process?
Mr. Lavrusik has a lot more credentials than little old me but I would like to say that just because news is becoming more social it doesn’t mean it is getting better. In fact, there are those who might argue that because anybody can say anything to anyone about anything that the truth may never actually be known.
It’s because of the need for impartial reporting which is fact based that this distance should be there. If reporters had to constantly engage and defend their positions when would they actually write more stories? We live in a society that won’t let arguments die so they become pissing matches and wars of verbal attrition where the person who gets the last word wins whether they are right or not. I don’t think that’s so good do you?
There is no easy answer for this one but I think that it is important for true news reporters to keep some distance. They write stories to present news with the ideal being that there is no bias. As a fellow human being I simply say that this is an impossible task and one we need to shelve immediately but that’s just my opinion.
How that news is then debated and hashed out in the public forum is up to the readers and there are avenues for this to occur. I say the reporters need to steer clear of the public debate because they will then inevitably be swayed or tore up or whatever and their desire to be a true reporter of news will be replaced by their feeling that each day will be a battle to defend their reporting.
Oh and by the way. This whole debate was sparked by an opinion piece. Get it, opinion. I think the Washington Post was pretty courageous to present this view in their paper. It’s not their view per se, but it is a view. That’s what good journalism is about isn’t it? Present different sides then let the reader decide whether they agree or not. The reader can then act according to their belief and desire to pursue it further. I would hope there is a rebuttal of sorts from the other side of the ledger at some point. That would be a good thing.
Maybe a little distance is a good thing as well. At the time of this post, the audience was split at 50% thinking that journalists should be engaged in social media and the rest having some form of restriction on their interaction as the preference.
What do you think? After all, I am not a journalist so I can talk to you :-).