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.

The tweet that started it all.

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.fravel Chris Fravel

    I agree that all of these are lines that should not be crossed by a journalist while they are being journalists. A weird phrase, I know, but Mr. Sonderman hit the nail on the head. It’s Mr. Catanese’s objective as a journalist to remain unbias and report the facts. Siding with anyone, politician, celebrity or just a character in a news story is bad news, literally. The moment his personal opinion was injected even the slightest bit, the story became less newsworthy and more of a debating point. I don’t think Catanese did this on purpose, I think he truly was trying to attract the attention of an audience by making an unpopular decision to support Todd Akin. He just went about it the wrong way and it ended up biting him in the rear-end. Catanese also sluffed off on his duties as a journalist to deliver information that may not have been previously known. When he asked the question, “What’s the science,” the angle he could have taken, as Mr. Sonderman has stated, would have been uncovering the science behind it and use it to either support Todd Akin’s claim or refute it. The final line, was kind of like Catanese making a mole-hill out of a mountain. He failed by not recognizing the impact that the comment has on the thoughts and views of society and how Todd Akin was severly in the wrong. A journalist has to know the severity of the story before reporting on it.
    All-in-all, Catanese mad a terrible move while attempting to “report” on the Todd Akin situation. He took it a step further by doing it on Twitter in such brief comments with no support of his stance.

  • Rocky Mountain

    You lefties are so big on free speech as long as it toes the party line and I don’t even have to agree with what Akin or Catanese said to see your complete and utter hypocrisy.

  • Rocky Mountain

    Since you’re unquestionably looking in your shorts all the time, what’s really in there and is it nuanced?

  • Rocky Mountain

    I wish I knew where you worked so I could ask your boss to fire you for making a stupid remark.

  • http://grandresume.com/ grandresume.com

    Lines journalists shouldn’t cross on Twitter: don’t reveal the fact that you’re a complete d-bag.

  • Anonymous

    He wouldn’t know a nuance if he found one in his shorts.

  • Chris Handler

    When has
    journalism ever been about “not taking sides” (especially in
    politics)? It doesnt matter if its print, TV or radio. They may tell true
    statements but it is hardly anything but neutral, its always leaning more
    toward one side or the other depending on how the journalist spins it. A
    perfect example, NBC and Fox both report on stories and tell the facts but NBC
    most always supports liberal stands and/or any mistakes liberal politicians
    make while Fox does the same conservatives.

    That being said, it wasn’t a good idea for him to
    speculate and make guess work of what was said, I agree with the 3 points that were made. He could have easily done a
    little research and got the same point across without blatantly siding with the
    politician.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Sonderman.

    Regarding 1, I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentences:
    “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’.”
    That is why I would not call that mistake “siding with a politician”. I would call it not having the facts, not telling the truth and not informing his audience.

    Regarding 2, I agree wholeheartedly

    Regarding 3, I think it is the same as 1.

  • Anonymous

    What he also did was attract attention to himself — not as a reporter inserting himself into a political/social debate, but as a man who thinks about raped women the same way Akin does. Not as victims, but as forbidden fruit to be consumed, then denied, excusing their own behavior.

    Like Rev. Al says, they’ve got the blueberry pie all over their faces.

  • Anonymous

    What he also did was attract attention to himself — not as a reporter inserting himself into a political/social debate, but as a man who thinks about raped women the same way Akin does. Not as victims, but as forbidden fruit to be consumed, then denied, excusing their own behavior.

    Like Rev. Al says, they’ve got the blueberry pie all over their faces.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps Catanese was merely following the latest in “J” School advice in attempting to build his “brand” and got branded for what this is: stupid.

  • Anonymous

    4. Attempting to have a nuanced conversation on Twitter, which is simply not possible.

  • http://twitter.com/DavidWShannon Dave Shannon

    I don’t think he showed contrition, I think he basically said people on twitter were too stupid to have a nuanced conversation

  • http://twitter.com/BelleStarr21445 BelleStarr

    He got what he deserved. They really should just go ahead and fire his butt. Journalism is supposed to be straight up not taking sides, just reporting the facts. He made the story about him and his opinions.