It’s been awhile since we had a blow-up among traditional media entities about using Twitter and other social media, but now the Washington Post has provided yet another compelling example of how newspapers in particular aren’t really getting the whole “social” aspect of the social-media phenomenon. This was easy to forgive a year or two ago, when Twitter was relatively new, and social media was unfamiliar territory, but it’s really hard to cut the Washington Post or its brethren much slack at this point. Now it almost seems like they don’t want to get it.
The issue this time, according to a report from Washington-based news startup TBD, was an editor using the newspaper’s Twitter account to defend the Post’s decision to run a particular column. The Post hasn’t provided any details, but TBD says that the complaint came from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which was upset about a column written by an anti-gay activist that ran in the paper’s faith section. According to TBD, an editor posted to Twitter to defend the running of the column by saying the newspaper was trying to cover both sides of the issue.
This led to a memo from Post managing editor Raju Narisetti, entitled “responding to readers via social media.” In it, Narisetti said that posting the tweet was wrong, and that while the newspaper encourages everyone in the newsroom to “embrace social media and relevant tools,” the main purpose of the Post’s accounts on these various networks is to “use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user-generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content.” Isn’t responding to readers a way of increasing engagement? Apparently not. The Post editor went on to say that:
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.
Narisetti said that while the newspaper welcomed responses from readers in the form of comments on its stories — and was prepared to “sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation” — debating issues with readers personally through social media was not allowed. Why? Because this would be “equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter.” The Washington Post ME didn’t provide any details on why this would be a bad thing, just that “it’s something we don’t do.” But why not? Surely criticism over the newspaper’s coverage of issues is a perfect occasion to engage with those readers, both on Twitter and elsewhere.
The fact that Narisetti was the one delivering this message is more than a little ironic, since the Post editor was involved in his own run-in with Post management over Twitter. Last year, the ME came under fire from senior editors after he posted some of his thoughts about political topics on his personal Twitter account. After the paper instituted a restrictive new social-media policy, Narisetti posted a message saying that “for flagbearers of free speech, some newsroom execs have the weirdest double standards when it comes to censoring personal views.” He later deleted his account.
There’s no question that Twitter has been the source of much tension in newsrooms across the country, and around the world, because of the way in which it makes journalism personal — something that many journalists see as a positive thing, but many traditional media entities see as a threat. Earlier this year, a senior editor at CNN was fired over remarks she made on Twitter, and just today, the BBC reprimanded its staff for sharing what the service called “their somewhat controversial opinions on matters of public policy” via social-networking sites like Twitter.
It seems that many media outlets are happy to use social media to promote their content, but when it comes to really engaging with readers, they would rather not.
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