Political Silence: Social Media And News Guidelines

It wasn’t all that long ago that the news world and the social media world were separate entities. While the articles that journalists wrote were typically shared all over social media, the actual news they broke—from inside scoops, to on-the-record interviews, to investigations—appeared in newspapers and on publishers’ websites before they appeared in newsfeeds and posts.

Extra, Extra – Tweet All About It

However, these days, the two are becoming more thoroughly intermingled. Especially in the era of the Trump presidency where Twitter serves as a ground zero for much of the nation’s news agenda, journalists are using Twitter as broadcast system as much as they are using it for a promotional tool. Often, leading journalists won’t provide context or behind the scenes details about their stories that didn’t make it into the print; they will share their juiciest scoops on social media before they share it anywhere else.
While this is great for readers—who get a more nuanced, less sanitized picture of the news from this kind of coverage—some publishers are getting nervous about the practice and banning it altogether. The New York Times recently announced sweeping changes to its social media policy, which it expects all of its reporters to adhere to. In a note written by editor in chief Dean Baquet and published on The Times’ website, he wrote: We believe that to remain the world’s best news organization, we have to maintain a vibrant presence on social media. But we also need to make sure that we are engaging responsibly on social media, in line with the values of our newsroom.”

Keeping It On The Page

The new guidelines included provisions that journalists must avoid posting content that makes it sound as though they are taking sides on a political issue. They must assume that every post on every social network is a representation of the Times, and they must engage with readers—even incendiary ones—respectfully, taking care not to “imply that the person hasn’t carefully read your work.”
While Baquet’s statement obviously indicates that The Times sees the need for social media and its role in journalism, not everyone is convinced that asking your journalists to deny  they have opinions in this highly partisan era is a responsible or effective approach. The Columbia Journalism Review published a piece on the changes saying that they don’t reflect the reality of the era: If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. And yet that is what social-media policies like the ones at the Times and the Journal are asking people to believe.”
Meanwhile, Splinter News wrote that the new policy actually plays into the hand of the very critics and haters the guidelines are meant to appease and does not reflect the current reality of the political moment: “Descriptors for Trump like ‘incompetent’ or ‘liar’ are safely factual statements—he demonstrably lies all the time and clearly knows little about how government works. But those words sound partisan when set against traditional norms for polite behavior in Washington. Times journalists gotta hear both sides, even if everyone in the room understands that one side has gone completely off the rails.”

Is Silence The New Norm?

The New York Times wasn’t the only publication that recently took stock of its social media guidelines. The Wall Street Journal is reported to have provided similar guidance to its journalists, showing that this approach may become more widespread. It remains to be seen if this will be adopted only by legacy media outlets like the Times and WSJ, or if more internet-native outlets will follow suit.