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“Politics as a chronic stressor”: News about politics bums you out and can make you feel ill — but it also makes you take action
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June 9, 2020, 12:05 p.m.
Audience & Social

“Women and people of color [are] more susceptible to discipline”: The Washington Post grapples with its social media policy in leaked memo

“People who are stars get away with murder.”

Last year, then–Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was formally admonished for expressing his views on Twitter. At the beginning of this year, Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended, then reinstated, for tweeting about Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations. The incidents exposed a company grappling with what its social media policy for reporters should be at a time when news breaks first on Twitter, reporters’ personal brands are seen as crucial for building relationships with readers in an increasingly subscriber-driven business, and notions of “objectivity” (and its value) are shifting rapidly.

To help address some of these issues, The Post in February tasked a group of National Desk staffers with writing a report analyzing the paper’s social media policy. The committee surveyed more than 50 Post reporters and ultimately found “near universal desire for a policy that is clearer and more specific about staffers’ responsibilities and limitations in using social media, as well as management’s obligations to employees’ security and equitable enforcement of the rules.” The report was leaked to Ben Smith, the media columnist at The New York Times and former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, and he shared it on Twitter on Monday.

The document — which the Post said on Monday is “part of a broader conversation we’ve been having throughout the newsroom about our use of social media” — is worth reading in full. Here are some highlights:

The committee has four major recommendations:
1. Redefine our purpose on social media.
2. Do more to acknowledge the abuse the staff confronts online — and make clear that the company will stand behind its employees when they are attacked.
3. Create a more transparent enforcement process that emphasizes best practices.
4. Reset the newsroom culture.

Expressing identity and personal experience can be particularly treacherous for certain reporters, as some aspects of personal identity are viewed as inherently political or controversial in our society, such as race and gender. “When you are a member of certain groups, assumptions are made,” one reporter said. Identifying as a member of a marginalized group “has opened me up to specific accusations of bias.”

This creates greater uncertainty and vulnerability for reporters who share personal experiences related to being a woman, LGBTQ, a person of color or an immigrant. For some of them, it’s unclear at what point sharing personal experience veers into what editors feel is bias. “I look at Astead Herndon at the New York Times. It’s clear that Astead’s identity is a whole part of what he writes,” another reporter said. “If I tweeted something he tweeted — it feels too far for me. But if it’s not [too far in The Post’s point of view], I’d like to know that.”

Some reporters who have been targeted on social media said editors have never asked how they were doing amid mob attacks. They generally do not feel supported by their bosses — or even their coworkers — in times of duress. They seek a culture where they can safely ask their editors or colleagues if they messed up and learn from the experience.

One reporter said, “The few times I had a story blow up, I’ve never had an editor reach out and say, ‘Hey, I see what’s happening, are you OK?’ or ‘I wrote that headline; I didn’t realize it’d be read like that on Twitter. Do you want to talk this out?’” […]

Women and people of color are particularly vulnerable. During the 2016 campaign, a female reporter’s cell phone number was leaked, resulting in harassing calls day and night, including while at home with her family. She received “really, really awful emails,” and the tormenters wrote negative things about her online that still come up in searches of her name. The reporter’s editors were compassionate, but management’s only advice was to keep hitting “block caller.”
“I don’t remember that being super helpful,” the reporter said. “I didn’t think I needed [security] to come to my house, but what are the precautions to take and when should I tell someone if something is escalating?”

Many feel as though there is a two-tiered system allowing some reporters to tweet things that would get others in trouble. Reporters said that white, male reporters often get away with potentially problematic messages, while female and minority colleagues are not given the benefit of the doubt. “People who are stars get away with murder,” one person said. “It’s frustrating to me that I can see some of my male colleagues tweeting and Instagramming about drinking and going to parties and hanging out with politicos outside of the office and being chummy with other political reporters at other places, and that that’s OK,” another reporter said. “But that if a woman is being public about being a sexual assault survivor or a reporter of color calls out problems that they see in our industry, that that’s not OK.”

While some reporters are comfortable using Twitter to share analysis on their beats, others said they feel undue pressure to use social media to bolster their standing as The Post’s expert on a topic.

“Because I’m not as active on Twitter anymore, I’m not booked on TV as much,” one reporter said. “If you take away the temptation of Twitter, you also kind of make yourself less visible. From a career standpoint, you’re weighing back and forth the pros and cons of that.”

Reporters said they often see competitors on the same beat publish Tweet threads with analyses on high-profile incidents, even when the analysis does not appear on the competitor’s website. But it is widely shared, generates attention for the competitor and bolsters their standing as an expert on the topic. Some reporters said they feel uncomfortable with this and prefer to publish content on The Washington Post’s website rather than a Tweet thread.

“Is that what The Post wants us to do?” one reporter asked. “I think it’s problematic because it puts you in a situation where you are commenting.”

Editors often assign stories based on what is trending and what competitors or sources are saying on Twitter. When editors “flag” tweets or mention observations from Twitter during meetings, some reporters feel they are receiving mixed messages — they’re told they don’t need to be on Twitter to be successful in their jobs, but they’re expected to monitor everything their competitors and sources are tweeting.

“It drives me crazy that editors say, ‘If you feel maybe you shouldn’t tweet something, then err on the side of not tweeting it’[or] ‘Twitter is a cesspool, an echo chamber,’ and you see them sitting at their desks just refreshing Tweetdeck all day long,” one reporter said. “It sometimes can feel like an internal Slack channel.”

A climate reporter said, “It’s a fact that carbon pricing is what we need to help stem a warming globe, but that would be considered political. That’s made more difficult by political parties who reject the truth as truth. We need to consider how that affects us on social media.”

The full memo is here.

POSTED     June 9, 2020, 12:05 p.m.
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