Journalists keep getting punished for tweeting. Where is the line between personal and professional? » The LA Times has published more than 100 Kobe Bryant stories

January 31, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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To post or not to, Post?

One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.

Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?

It happens all the time, but one of the biggest examples of this was when Jemele Hill, while she was working at ESPN in 2017, tweeted that President Donald Trump was a “white supremacist.” Was she expressing a personal opinion to her followers or was she always on the clock as an ESPN journalist?

In an essay for The Undefeated right after the controversy, Hill wrote, “Yes, my job is to deliver sports commentary and news. But when do my duties to the job end and my rights as a person begin? I honestly don’t know the answer to that.”

Here we are, three years later, and the lines are still blurred. Just this week, another controversy erupted when a Washington Post reporter was suspended for tweeting about a 2003 rape allegation against basketball star Kobe Bryant immediately after news broke that Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash.

Reporter Felicia Sonmez was briefly suspended as the Post looked into whether or not she violated the company’s social media policy. Post executive editor Marty Baron scolded Sonmez in an email, saying her tweet lacked judgment and that she was “hurting this institution by doing this.”

Eventually, the Post determined that Sonmez did not violate any policies and she was reinstated. But the controversy rages on.

On Thursday, CNN’s Oliver Darcy obtained a lengthy memo from Baron to the Post staff. “We do not want social media activity to be a distraction, and we do not want it to give a false impression of the tenor of our coverage,” Baron wrote. “It is not always easy to know where to draw the line.”

Nowhere in the three-page memo did Baron apologize to Sonmez or the staff for how the Post handled the incident. Maybe that’s because the Post, like pretty much every news organization out there, still isn’t sure what’s right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or suspension-worthy when it comes to social media. Even Baron said in his memo that this all “deserves continued discussion” and that he wants the staff to be a part of those discussions.

Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.

Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?

Unless news outlets ban its employees from tweeting at all, this is a problem doesn’t have an end in sight.

Covering Kobe in Los Angeles

A memorial for Kobe Bryant near Staples Center in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

I had a chance to catch up with Los Angeles Times managing editor Scott Kraft to talk about the Times’ superb coverage of the tragic death of basketball star Kobe Bryant. While the story was international news, it was a local story for the Times. After all, Bryant spent his entire 20-year career playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, and the helicopter crash that took his life and those of eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, happened in Los Angeles.

Covering horrific events is something no news outlet relishes, but such moments do show just how accomplished a news staff can be. Kraft shared with me the letter he, executive editor Norm Pearlstine and senior deputy managing editor Kimi Yoshino wrote to the Times’ staff.

“The words ‘All Hands on Deck’ don’t begin to describe the extraordinary effort and consummate professionalism required to produce memorable journalism for our digital, print and video outlets,” they wrote. “Our readers and viewers had every right to expect comprehensive coverage.”

And the Times has provided it. Already, it has produced more than 100 separate stories on Bryant and the crash. Those stories have brought a combined 20 million visits to their website. The Times removed its paywall for Kobe coverage, but Kraft reports readers “chose to subscribe at double the usual rate.”

The editors also told its staff, “As proud as we are of the stories we published, we are equally proud of the restraint shown in demanding confirmation before publishing, proving yet again that it’s better to be right than to be first.”

McSuper Bowl

Hard Rock Stadium, site of Sunday’s Super Bowl. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Happy Super Bowl. The big game is Sunday and other than Fox, which is carrying the game, the all-in media company is McClatchy.

Check it out: The game is Miami, home of the McClatchy-run Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. One of the participating teams is the Kansas City Chiefs, which are covered by the McClatchy-owned Kansas City Star. The other team is the San Francisco 49ers, which are covered by the McClatchy-owned Sacramento Bee.

“I cannot overstate how different our approach this year will be from what we WOULD HAVE and COULD HAVE done in the past,” Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s VP of News, told me.

Roberts said the Kansas City Star sent 11 staffers to Miami, while the Bee sent two. The Herald will help cover the game from the San Francisco perspective for the Bee. All three departments are sharing content.

Alex Mena, sports editor for the Herald, said the Herald will have 10 sports reporters and five news reporters on site for the game. Two more will be in the office covering any other Super Bowl-related issues. And we’re not just talking about written stories.

“We are doing much more than stories, with podcasts, videos and other digital story forms making up a big part of our strategy,” Kansas City Star managing editor Greg Farmer told me in an email. “For example, The Star’s podcast, “Sports Beat KC,” has been recording daily from Miami and encouraging reader/listener engagement by giving them the opportunity to ask the questions.

“On video, The Star and Herald are coordinating and sharing, with the Bee also using the videos that result from that collaboration. The robust video strategy includes news coverage, enterprise work and livestreaming. We’ve also enlisted help from the McClatchy technology and design teams to help us create special digital packages, like this one on ‘Why we love the Chiefs.’”

So does an event such as the Super Bowl actually help a company like McClatchy with audience engagement and digital traffic?

“This year’s Super Bowl provided our markets the chance to increase audience reach like never before,” Cynthia Dubose, McClatchy’s Senior Editor for Audience Growth and Retention, told me. “This is our opportunity to form a relationship with those visitors whether they subscribe to a newsletter, start following us on a social platform, or even experience our e-edition — making that connection is a vital first step in growing our footprint.”

One less ombudsman

Staff changes and buyouts at the Orlando Sentinel mean shifting assignments. Unfortunately, that means the paper is dropping its always-insightful “Inside the Newsroom” column by John Cutter, who served as a reader representative (or ombudsman). Cutter is moving on to another assignment at the Sentinel.

In a column, he wrote, “I have enjoyed explaining what we do and why we do it for more than a year, but my new responsibilities leave no time. I still plan to write occasionally about newsroom changes and other issues we want to communicate to readers. But I won’t be acting as ombudsman or connecting with you as often by email, online or in print.”

That’s too bad. The Sentinel was one of the few major papers left that still had an ombudsman. Manning Pynn wrote an ombudsman column for the Sentinel from 2001 to 2008 and then Cutter picked up a new version of it in 2018.

The Sentinel joins the lists of papers dropping the column, a list that most notably includes The New York Times. The Times dropped its public editor in 2017 and has come under criticism, especially in media circles, for not employing one in the face of various controversies.

Cutter said that readers are still welcome to write or comment to editor-in-chief Julie Anderson or manager editor Roger Simmons. But that’s not the same as a paper being proactive about reader issues.

From paper to screen

The Washington Post’s blockbuster “Afghanistan Papers” is coming to television. Amblin Television — a division of Amblin Partners, a production company founded by Steven Spielberg — reached a deal with the Post to acquire the rights for “At War with the Truth,” the Post’s report on “The Afghanistan Papers.”

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney will be executive producer with Jigsaw Productions and Amblin Television to develop the project as both a limited documentary series and a limited script series.

“This is a vital story at a critical moment,” Gibney said in a statement. “For once we will hear an honest, intimate account from insiders of the epic tale of the forever war: politicians regale us with victory speeches while day by day, casualties mount and the battle for hearts and minds are lost. Why? Because no one bothered to wonder why we are there.”

Another shimmy to Quibi

Tech journalist Laurie Segall is the latest to join “60 in 6,” a “60 Minutes”-type show being developed for CBS’s new streaming service, Quibi. The show will tell the kind of stories “60 Minutes” does but in six-minute segments. Earlier this week, “60 in 6” announced it had hired Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wesley Lowery.

Segall’s news was first reported by Variety’s Brian Steinberg.

Segall spent a decade at CNN before starting her own media company, Dot Dot Dot. She will continue to oversee that, as well as make occasional appearances on “CBS This Morning.”

Hot type

A man blows a puff of smoke as he vapes with an electronic cigarette. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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