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Why the NYT is wrong to put a social-media muzzle on its journalists

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Watching traditional media outlets grapple with the unfiltered nature of social media has been a little like watching a bear try to pick up a porcupine — some have been tentative, others have tried to lock social-media use down as much as possible, and some have been stung and reacted badly. The New York Times is one of the few that has not felt it necessary to draft a restrictive new policy on Twitter and Facebook use, but now it has done something that is arguably even worse, by appointing an editor to oversee the tweets and status updates of its Jerusalem bureau chief after some of her comments raised hackles. Do newspapers really need to hamstring their journalists this way?

According to a blog post from NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s new Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren — who has covered Washington and other beats, and moved to the Middle East to start coverage for the Times earlier this year — had a “rocky start” to her new job as a result of some comments she made on Twitter and Facebook (s fb). Among other things, she was criticized for praising a book about Zionism, for linking to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper (without comment) and “schmoozing” with a Palestinian activist, and for making what some felt were insensitive remarks on Facebook about the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Will every reporter now get a social-media editor?

In her post, Sullivan praises Rudoren for being “responsive to readers [and] spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style.” But those positive qualities then quickly get turned into negatives, as the public editor goes on to say that the Jerusalem bureau chief is also “not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting… in one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism.” Says Sullivan:

“Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key. The result is very likely to be problematic.”

The result of all this is that Rudoren gets what amounts to a social-media editor of her own: an editor from the newspaper’s foreign desk has been assigned to “work closely” with the Jerusalem bureau chief on what she posts to Twitter and Facebook. The idea, says Sullivan, is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers “while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.” According to the public editor, this is a necessary step because the alternative would be to ignore social media altogether, and this would be unwise.

But is that really the only alternative the NYT had in this case — to ban its Jerusalem bureau chief from social media completely? Perhaps we should be grateful that the newspaper didn’t fire her immediately, as CNN did its senior editor and veteran Middle East analyst Octavia Nasr in 2010, after a single tweet in which she expressed admiration for a deceased Hezbollah leader. At the time, I wrote about how this showed a complete lack of understanding of the benefits of social media for journalists, despite the potential risks of criticism like Rudoren has been experiencing.

When I criticized the NYT’s latest move on Twitter, a former newspaper editor I know asked me why it mattered so much that a reporter’s tweets might be reviewed and potentially edited (or censored, depending on your viewpoint) by someone at the Times. After all, he said, newspaper stories are edited — so why not tweets and Facebook posts?

The problem, as John Cook has pointed out at Gawker, is that social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook get the vast majority of their power from the fact that they are what Margaret Sullivan seems to want to protect us from: namely, the unedited and unfiltered thoughts and opinions of a journalist. The more you edit them and try to filter out or smooth over all the bumps and blemishes, the more you rob them of that power — the power to connect human beings to other human beings as directly as possible. At that point, you might as well not do it at all.

It’s okay for journalists to be human beings

I understand that the Middle East is a powder keg — even Sullivan herself has inadvertently proven this, by adding a description to her blog post about Rudoren that one Palestinian activist says defamed him and requires an apology. So what is the appropriate response to what Rudoren did in that kind of environment?

The Times seems to feel that it needs to homogenize and sterilize its correspondent’s views as much as possible, so as not to risk offending anyone unnecessarily. But it should be obvious to just about anyone that virtually any comment at all is going to offend someone in that kind of situation. Why not allow its bureau chief to discover those limits and danger zones herself, in real time, in the full view of the newspaper’s readers? Will this be uncomfortable, possibly even painful? Yes. Will it also be valuable and potentially positive in the long term? I believe that it will.

The reason why there is so much sound and fury about media transparency and allowing reporters to express opinions like normal human beings is that the idea of journalistic objectivity has become a fig leaf of epic proportions: readers arguably don’t believe in it (if they ever have), and therefore they assume that journalists have opinions they are simply hiding or pretending not to have. Could that be why public trust in the media continues to be so consistently abysmal?

What the foreign editor of the NYT should say to his new Jerusalem bureau chief is exactly what Katie Rosman has said she was told by a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal about using social media: namely, don’t be stupid. And more than that, he should tell Rudoren that she has his full support in trying to find a balancing act between being open about her opinions and taking heat for them — and that the paper believes it is an important battle worth fighting, regardless of the public flak that ensues.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hoggarazi and Rosaura Ochoa

7 Responses to “Why the NYT is wrong to put a social-media muzzle on its journalists”

  1. Valery Lepinette

    This is just another example of of the corporate world getting to grips with new usage, but interesting to see that this time its a media organization that is discovering to some extent “social media bashing”. Since NYT too is running a business with a P&L, its not totally unreasonable for them to set up a little bit of social media usage governance for their reporters, just like any corporate organization would do. Will it serve NYT medium term objectives is the real question, but I’m sure they have reviewed that carefully before taking that decision. At least their decision seems to be coherent with their traditional business model of producing thought leadership media coverage. NYT or other corporate organization objectives don’t necessarily align to its employees free posting activity. But I agree that free posting is the essence of social networks business model, so it does matter for social networks owners. This is raising the problem of corporate values adhesion by employees in the digital world.

  2. @50GreenDodge, yes, I read the NYTimes every day. Along with, oh, a couple million other people.

    As for the main topic, the Times is definitely going overboard. I’m glad I’m not a journalist. I’m a high school teacher, and school districts across the country are making wonderful “Social Media Policies” (which are, by the letter, much stricter than the Times reaction to Rudoren’s tweets).

    But really they’re CYA policies for school districts that can’t be enforced (most cross of them clearly cross the border of free speech) and won’t be enforced unless a teacher does something ridiculous (like the teacher in NJ who made bigoted remarks about gay students).

    There’s nothing wrong with journalists having opinions. We all know they have them anyway, and trying to pretend like they don’t is just stupid.

  3. Journalists’ use of social media, Twitter in particular, depends a lot on the subject matter. Reuters financial chart person, Scotty Barber, is great. He interacts with the public, acknowledges and thanks people who point out occasional oversights. Same is true for other Reuters economic and business journalists (Cate Long, Pedro deCosta, Eric Burroughs). They aren’t covering news in the Middle East, though.

    Olaf Storbeck (Handelsblatt), Lisa Pollack (FT) and Binyamin Appelbaum (NY Times) cover U.S. and European business, economic and public policy news. They are active on Twitter. They seem deliberately neutral, yet responsive and spontaneous in their public Twitter interactions.

    I am so appreciative! The opportunity to glimpse the person behind the news story by-line has made a big difference to me. It has motivated me to follow current events more closely than I ever did before (even though I knew should have been more diligent in the past). I am grateful, and hope sensible social media activity by reporters will continue.

  4. Hi,

    The NYT doesn’t like it that we can see the bias of one of its writers. She’s wet, she thought she could write what came instinctively, whether it was racist and bigoted or de-humanizing or not, she’s quickly learning she must learn the script at the NYT.

    Yes, Cry for Israeli’s in fear, while surrounded by actual death of babies in Gaza where you’re meant to be reporting from, et al, but don’t be so obvious to let readers know what you actually think of the “other” people, those who speak that foreign A-Rab language, etc!

    Interesting timeline of the evolution of the story/incident :

    More generally, this is why Social Media has its benefits, people can easily communicate and converse with those in the media – for some reason they needed FB/Twitter to do this rather than web1.0 email – we get dialogue, which enables discourse, which enables empathy, which begets progress (and hopefully, harmony) but that’s on a person-2-person basis; commercially, old-style media is almost all about control, and so unless you’re going to be liberal in the permissions granted to your staff, you’re fighting a paradoxical uphill struggle against someone spouting impulsively their personal thoughts for what retains as persistent global publishing.

    nb. see the complete killing-off of MYspace by Murdoch/newsCorp moribund decision-making processes, i.e. control.

    jjj is completely right about soc.nets for commercial businesses, but is the solution to be honest about what NYT writers really think and let them declare their biases for all to appreciate, or as the NYT is deciding to do, give us a varnished version of actual facts and their own editorial agenda, however corrupted?

    Yours kindly,


    • SR,
      I’m not familiar with the NY Times bureau chief in Jerusalem beyond this post, which said:
      “she was criticized for praising a book about Zionism, for linking to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper without comment, and ‘schmoozing’ with a Palestinian activist…”
      Doesn’t seem as though Jodi Rudoren was biased against A-rabs (your expression, not mine).

      Nevertheless, I believe that you are correct, for a journalist covering very politically and emotionally charged news. Even if Jodi Rudoren’s coverage were equally critical, or praising, of all sides, there would be problems. That’s because in each isolated instance, on Twitter or Facebook, we only see that particular comment or update. NY Times’ own editors can look at the sum total, over time, but it is not so easy (or rather, so likely) that the public will do similarly.

      Trust in journalists and the media is VERY important! There is already distrust, sometimes unnecessarily so. The public shouldn’t need to vet journalists for integrity and unbiased coverage, and is unlikely to do so.

      I really like mainstream media and traditional journalism. I don’t like Huffington Post. I do like lots of Giga Om (Ms. Higginbotham is AMAZING)… and I’m starting to trust Mathew Ingram too, as a consistent reporter. Social media can reinforce the effectiveness of news media, when used with care, but that’s another topic.

  5. You are looking at this all wrong,what is said publicly on social media by folks representing NYT should be at the same standards as what in published on no matter the subject.Besides that , social media should be used for marketing, there is no other upside,so from a business perspective there should be a clear strategy of what and when is published.
    NYT needs to maintain it’s reputation and standards and needs to make some money.