Posted October 21, 2010 11:14 am by with 12 comments

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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 :-).

  • Andrea Weinfurt

    Great post Frank. This dilemma is especially interesting because it addresses the precarious and unique situation facing journalists and social media. The trademark of some newspapers are their opinion pages and the ability of readers to share their viewpoints in public forum. In the past, the newspaper itself never had the venue (or the intent) to respond. However the advent of social media means readers and newspapers are now navigating a two-way street. Social media ideally involves engagement from both sides. It seems the Washington Post should re-visit its approach to social media because the same tenets that applied 10 years ago might not apply now.

    • Thanks for checking in Andrea.

      I am not opposed to exploring how reporters and readers can interact but in this new world order I wonder if the old way is all that bad? Someone, somewhere has to keep an arms length approach so that we can hope to have some reporting that is not influenced. I know that is polly-annish but what if reporters start to do stories or take a stance that is designed to minimize the noise from their loudest detractors (which will likely be a small trollish bunch). We all suffer then because to keep the wolves at bay we are possibly getting a skewed view.

      Not saying that this is inevitable but it truly needs to be considered and thought through thoroughly. Two concepts which our new “knee jerk reaction” society doesn’t seem to do much these days but it needs to be considered.

      Thanks again for checking in.

    • Michael Sands

      Agreed that the Washington Post needs to review their policy on social media. Even truer that the same tenets that applied 10 years ago may not apply now. If newspapers and traditional journalists are going to survey in the new age of social media, they better embrace it. Whether they like it or not, they are going to have to give up some of their control, because that is what is expected from readers at this point in time: A two-way model of communication

  • I wonder if perhaps a lot of reporters are thinking twice about espousing their personal views in public forums like social media after the recent firings of Rick Sanchez from CNN and Juan Williams from NPR? I think that if news media organizations continue this trend, it won’t be long until most journalists self-censor themselves from any sort of interaction aside from what their work requires.

    • Self preservation will certainly shape behaviors. This will be a case by case deal that will play out very differently depending on readership tendencies, regional differences and a million other variables. Certainly one to continue to pay attention to.

  • Thanks for your thoughts and the kind words, Frank. I do agree that there needs to be some distance, but discouraging interaction at an organization like the Washington Post will only further discourage journalists from participating and being part of the community on the social web. I do think that distance is healthy. I look at reporters like Justin Fenton at the Baltimore Sun who does a great job of engaging, getting his work done and keep a healthy distance. Check him out at

    Thanks for sparking this conversation further. It is certainly an important one to have.

    • Thanks, Vadim. This looks like one of those situations where there will be no clear cut right or wrong. I will check out Justin.

      Also, do you think it is more feasible to be able to interact in a smaller market like Baltimore v a larger one like DC (which in the case of the Washington Post is very international as well)?

      This will be an ongoing discussion for, well, forever since there will be no way to please everyone.

      Thanks for checking in!

  • Frank, saying reporters should maintain their distance from news consumers (i.e. the public) and not answer questions is like saying a minister or rabbi should maintain distance from their congregation and act similarly. Either way, you’d be telling people to act on blind faith–which is never a good thing, either up on an altar or bimah or off of it. The days of believing in the words of a journalist or a masthead just because of their position are long gone. Wishing for the past won’t make it reappear, nor should it. I fully believe journalists and newspapers (for want of a better term, since they are mostly not paper anymore) who choose not to engage in regular and contemporary debate in the online public forum will simply fade into meaninglessness. It’s just another way to put your masthead behind a firewall.

    • @Mike – While I respect your opinion, equating journalism with faith related interaction is not even a fair analysis. Religion is extremely personal where reporting doesn’t have to be but can be if that is desired. I don’t want to interact with every journalist and I absolutely don’t take their word as the truth. I use it as a way to inspire my thoughts then subsequent actions around an issue or whatever. Whether I make them agree with me or engage with me is not even important because they have their views and I have mine. Most people confuse engagement with arguing so that’s what I see happening more than real dialogue. Asa result these interactions become pissing contests which I don’t need to participate in or watch.

      Of course, just because I say it doesn’t mean it’s right so thanks for stopping by and adding on.

      • Frank, from my perspective (and this was part of my point, I apologize if I wasn’t clear on it), interaction is interaction. Engagement is reason-agnostic. Whyever we choose to connect, we either do so or we don’t. And I don’t think there’s anything that doesn’t profit from a discussion. Moreover, I’ve never known any journalist–or human being, for that matter–capable of not bringing something of themselves into their reporting. On those grounds, I think it’s fair to say an absence of engagement would equal blind faith. Jump back a century or two in this country, and the idea that reporting wouldn’t be partisan and opinionated would be unheard of. To think that the people who are writing the stories or the people who are employing those writers are somehow qualitatively different today seems hard to believe for me.

  • SB

    I don’t think we should be taking this memo to mean that The Washington Post is discouraging its journalists from using Twitter — they are only cautioning the reporters to not express their views as the views of the newspaper. This is a very common thing for a person who works for any organization. I’m sure we’re all familiar with emails with footers like, “the views expressed in this message do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization”. Reporters can still state their opinions on their own Twitter accounts (the memo says: “we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools”), which makes total sense to me. Other opinions would go through an editor, which is common practice for any publication.

    Those with blogs and who participate in various forums knows that it’s best not to reply to flamers. Washington Post is simply sticking to a similar policy.

  • I’m finding it humorous how many people are taking so much of this story out of context. I’m not surprised at all, considering the underlying topic is a controversial one, so the marketing and PR sharks are in a sensational feeding frenzy (including the photo used in this article).

    However, this is more proof to HR professionals that a social media policy is paramount to prevent well-intentioned employees from speaking out of turn AS A REPRESENTATIVE of the company. The Post clearly needs some internal training to make sure it’s writers can and will respond appropriately, based on the employer’s stance rather than personal feelings, but until then they will do what most companies do – have specific people tasked to handle specific customer complaints, in person, in writing AND in social media.

    @Mike: Your premise starts in the wrong place and your analogy doesn’t work. You’re comparing blue apples (don’t exist) to oranges. The policy didn’t say to “maintain their distance from news customers” – it said to let the appropriate person in the company respond to specific public comments so that the company is properly represented. It is clear that the responses were not based on the companies stance. The writers can speak for themselves in their personal space, but not all are qualified to be company spokespersons.