Twitter dustups are a reminder: Journalists, you are what you tweet

The surprise departure from Twitter on Monday of New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, who tweeted that the medium is “too much of a distraction,” is the latest illustration of the double-edged sword that journalists’ favorite social platform has become for the news industry.

One of the most prominent reporters on Twitter with 348,000 followers, Thrush told me that stepping off was a decision he’d been mulling for a year, in part because discourse on the platform is “nastier and less fun than it used to be” and tweets can cause “unneeded conflict between reporters and editors.”

Twitter had become “the biggest time suck since Asteroids,” he added, and while he’ll miss aspects of it, leaving frees up time to focus on writing a book on the Trump White House with fellow Times reporter Maggie Haberman (another prolific tweeter who gave no indication to her 632,000 followers that she planned to quit the platform).

Thrush’s departure comes a week after ESPN host Jemele Hill’s tweet calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist drew a rebuke from her network, solidarity from her colleagues, and an angry public call from the White House press secretary for her firing.

Managers across the country tell me they frequently have to put out fires from tweets that reflect badly on the news organization, and routinely rule out job candidates if their Twitter feeds raise concerns.

Used to its best effect, Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for journalists to share their work, amplify their reach, and even crowdsource reporting.

Think of the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who enlisted followers to help him in his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Donald Trump’s charities.

Reporters love Twitter  — myself very much included — because it allows us to stay up-to-the-minute on news, scoop the competition with real-time nuggets, discover and showcase great work from a variety of sources, and engage members of our audience we wouldn’t otherwise meet. President Trump himself breaks news constantly on Twitter, making it a place many journalists feel they must be if they want to keep up with the conversation.

But with great power of a massive interactive soapbox comes great responsibility, and as countless cringeworthy examples prove, Twitter can be a minefield, with reputational and legal risks for individuals and newsrooms. It’s also an addiction that editors complain robs time from their reporters’ producing stories.

In many newsrooms, even those that have some guidelines, the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not are pretty fuzzy and subjective, and it’s easy to see where confusion creeps in. On one hand, newsrooms want journalists to show their personality and build a brand and following to drive traffic to the company’s site. The 140-character limit and Twitter’s community reward speed, brevity and cleverness with more followers, but the pressure to break news and the challenge of expressing nuance in brief statements is also a trap.

Editors and legal departments spend hours and days tweaking wording to avoid bias and liability in stories and headlines — yet, with one sloppy tweet, journalists open themselves and their newsrooms to embarrassment and lawsuits.

Broadcasting one’s hot takes and personal opinions used to be reserved for drinks with friends; on Twitter, it can be a career-ender. In the space of two weeks in May and June, the Denver Post (Terry Frei), Breitbart (Katie McHugh), CNN (Reza Aslan) and LBC (Katie Hopkins), a British talk radio station, let go four people over tweets that bosses judged incendiary or offensive. In the same period, a freelance writer was criticized by readers and disavowed by newsrooms because he tweeted jokes about the Manchester attack that many considered tasteless and insensitive.

The risk of being misconstrued on Twitter is heightened in a polarized political environment where “plenty of people out there are trying to attack and twist words of journalists” and drag them into Twitter wars, Politico managing editor Sudeep Reddy said in an interview.

In a recent series of newsroom meetings, he and Politico boss Carrie Budoff Brown stressed that “we’re journalists, and we’re here to report, rather than serve as activists.” Reddy’s advice boils down to this: “Think before you tweet. It sounds so simple, but that’s where you can get into trouble, because Twitter is a frenzied environment.” It’s easy for readers to misunderstand or distort a 140-character musing — and for the consequences to go viral.

Politico has taken a range of disciplinary actions over its journalists’ social media use, including firing some over inflammatory posts. The recent meetings were an effort to head off future problems, and to address the rise in online troll attacks on journalists, Reddy said; staffers were urged not to incite or fight but to report threats to managers.

Reddy said reporters were not told to steer clear of weighing in on issues such as attacks on press freedom or racism; rather, they were told to think carefully about what message they’re trying to send and which facts they can marshal for their point. Twitter’s space limit doesn’t encourage nuance and often “is not a good way to talk about these issues,” he said.

By now, most newsrooms have policies (Poynter helped some craft some of them), but there’s been scant industry-wide guidance since the Association of Newspaper Editors’ 50-page report on best practices for social media in 2011.

Social media has changed dramatically since. Not only is the current occupant of the Oval Office the tweeter-in-chief, but older journalists who were reluctant to join the fray back then are among its most active users now, said James Hohmann, reporter for the Washington Post’s “Daily 202” politics newsletter who researched and wrote the ASNE guidelines six years ago when he was at Politico.

When he reviewed newsrooms’ social media policies for the report, Hohmann was struck that many were legalistic and didn’t account for the value in journalists’ offering fact-based analysis or seeking information for their reporting.

He hasn’t changed his view that Twitter is a tremendous journalistic tool: “It allows you to create instant focus groups. You can watch a debate and see what 30 New Hampshire activists think right away,” he said. Yet the potential pitfalls are enormous, including the temptation to broadcast one’s thoughts without a filter or editor.

Hohmann likens Twitter to “walking around with a loaded gun: You have to be responsible with how you carry it, because you can fire it at any time” and hurt somebody, including yourself.

“When you’re a reporter with a big platform you’re not a random person on the internet, and you shouldn’t pick fights with people on the internet,” Hohmann added. “You could come up with 35 specific policies, but a lot of this is common sense — you know it when you see it.”

For the benefit of those who may not know it when they see it — especially for young journalists and for those who’ve come to the profession from other industries — I’ve put together some guidelines that may help:

  • Think before you tweet, as Reddy says. Consider whether you’d write those same words in a story with your byline over it or utter them on television or radio for the whole world to hear. Can you stand behind the statement and the facts supporting you if challenged?
  • Realize that you’re not just talking to friends at a bar. Everything you write on Twitter is public and will live on (and potentially haunt you) in internet archives and screenshots.
  • Corollary to the above: Remember that Twitter is intoxicating and dangerous, like driving drunk. Also… don’t drunk-tweet.
  • Consider your role: If you’re a reporter and not a columnist, your bosses may expect you to keep opinions to yourself because they inevitably reflect on your newsroom.
  • Be confident you can support your comments with reporting and facts. That’s good advice for columnists and editorial writers too — though as Robert Schlesinger, managing editor for US News’ opinions points out, for editorial writers and columnists, “bias is a feature, not a bug.”
  • Understand the policies of the organization you work for, says Joy Mayer, an audience engagement specialist and adjunct faculty at Poynter who teaches an online course on social media. Some newsrooms expect social media to be all about business; others expect staffers to be human beings on social media and don't mind journalists engaging on hot-button issues if it's consistent with their personalities, Mayer said. If you aren’t sure, ask your managers.
  • If you're feeling angry or emotional, take a deep breath and pause before you tweet anything. The world won’t end if your take isn’t instantaneous.
  • Don’t fight with trolls. It’s unproductive and often makes a bad situation worse. It’s fine to engage with sincere readers and critics, but keep it civil.
  • If you mess up, have a plan, said Mayer: “Your organization might have a policy for handling social media corrections or missteps.” She recommends deleting a post “only if continued harm will come from leaving it up. Transparency is the better default course… Reply to a tweet with an apology, explanation or correction.”
  • NPR’s Standards Editor Mark Memmott told me his network’s policy is to screenshot an offending post before deleting it, and to attach it to a correction or apology. The idea is to be accountable and transparent that a mistake was made, but not magnify the harm by letting it be retweeted.
  • Last but not least, remember that Twitter can become an addiction, sucking valuable time away from other parts of our jobs and lives.

That’s partly what nudged Thrush off Twitter. He wants to redirect that time and energy to his book. He also had discovered his candor and sarcasm were souring some sources and friends needlessly, and while he enjoyed engaging critics, that was impossible with users who “are paid, bots or deaf to argument.”

What will Thrush miss most about Twitter? “Crowdsourcing story” angles, “yelling at the TV,” scooping competitors, using his following “to showcase the work of people I admire and interacting with people I never would have met otherwise,” he told me.

After his book’s done, I hope he’ll be back.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics and a Boston Globe columnist, has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions, reporting from the US and 80 countries for the Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS and Politico Magazine.

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