3 lines journalists cannot cross on Twitter (or anywhere else)
Politico reporter David Catanese got a whole face-full of blowback this week for a series of tweets defending Republican congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin's controversial comments about rape, pregnancy and abortion.
Politico bosses pulled Catanese off the story, and he tweeted Monday that it was a "bad idea trying to have nuanced conversation on highly charged issue on here. Did not intend to take a side. Lesson learned."
The comments were unpopular, for sure. But if anyone is going to learn something from this, we have to ask what, exactly, went wrong here?
First, for the record, here is what Catanese actually tweeted on Sunday and Monday:
1. "Ok, I'm gonna (ask for it) & defend @ToddAkin for argument's sake. We all know what he was trying to say . . ."
2. "Poor phrasing, but if you watch the intv @ToddAkin meant to convey that there's less chance of getting pregnant if raped."
3. "So perhaps some can agree that all rapes that are reported are not actually rapes? Or are we gonna really deny that for PC sake?"
4. "So looks like he meant to say -- 'If a woman was REALLY raped, it's statistically less likely for her to get pregnant.' What's the science?"
5. "So maybe. Just maybe, @ToddAkin didn't really mean 'legitimate.' Perhaps he meant if 'someone IS really raped' or 'a rape really occurs'"
6. "The left is often 1st to shut down debate as 'off limits' when it deems so. Aren't these moments supposed to open up a larger debate?"
The three mistakes
1. Siding with a politician. It's a classic way to get attention or Web traffic -- zig when everyone else zags. Catanese acknowledged in tweet No. 1 he was about to "ask for it" and "defend @ToddAkin for argument's sake." I imagine Catanese initially thought the phrase "for argument's sake" would insulate him from blowback. But journalists are on risky ground when they step into a political debate with the stated intention to "defend" one side, however they may describe their intention.
This isn't an argument for false equivalency. Journalists should focus on the facts, and report what light they shed on each side's position. The only side reporters should take is the readers'.
2. Asking questions he could have been answering. In tweet No. 4 above, Catanese casts a question into the air about rape-induced pregnancy rates -- "What's the science?" In other tweets, he speculates about what Akin "meant to convey."
Catanese -- a journalist, remember -- would have been better served to interview experts and tell us what the science is. Or to interview Akin or his colleagues and advisers to unearth enlightening facts about his past positions and comments on these issues.
There's a time for crowdsourcing, and a time for reporting. When merely asking the question publicly causes undeserved harm or spreads a rumor, it's better to do your own private reporting before going public.
3. Missing the bigger point. Catanese was trying to have what he later called "a nuanced conversation" about a topic that was not, in fact, nuanced.
He tried to parse Akin's intentions or raise a tangential scientific question about rape-induced pregnancy rates -- issues dwarfed by the fundamental offensiveness and wrongness of Akin's comments. It is a bit like saying Adolf Hitler "was good in the beginning, but went too far." Maybe, maybe not -- but nobody cares in comparison to the bigger picture.
All that said, give Catanese a break. He tried to engage an audience (a virtuous goal), he made some mistakes (who hasn't?), and he seems to have shown contrition. Let's learn and move on. There are worse journalistic sins.