WaPo’s backward memo on Twitter

TBD reported Friday that WaPo managing editor Raju Narisetti sent out a memo last week calling on users of the paper’s offticial Twitter stream to stop answering critics of the paper or any of its reports. The memo references no specific incident, but as TBD notes, comes a little too close to an @GLAAD/@WashingtonPost feud for anyone to think of the two as unrelated. From Erik Wemple’s TBD report:

However, what is clear is that the circumstances described in the memo do align with a short series of tweets between GLAAD and the paper over a piece that ran in “On Faith” this week. The piece in question was penned by anti-gay activist Tony Perkins, who came up with some interesting theories on why gay teens get depressed.

GLAAD lashed out at the Post on Twitter, and the official Post account lashed back, saying that the paper was working “both sides” of the issue. It pointed out that it’d already had Dan Savage in a live chat, presumably exploring the anti-Perkins “side” of the discussion. GLAAD responded: “@WashingtonPost There are not “both sides” to this issue. Teen suicide isn’t a debate-it’s a tragedy. http://bit.ly/crX6q5 #LGBT “

And here is the memo:

From: Raju Narisetti Sent: 10/15/2010 12:25 PM EDT To: NEWS - All Newsroom@WashPostMain Subject: Responding to readers via social media

This week, some Post staffers responded to outside critics via our main Twitter account. At issue was a controversial piece we’d published online. The intent in replying was to defend the decision to publish the piece, but it was misguided both in describing our rationale for publishing the piece and as a matter of practice. It shouldn’t have been sent.

Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.

Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: when we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor—and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do.

Please feel free to flag Marcus, Liz and me when you see something out there that you think deserves a response from the Post. As we routinely do, we will work with Kris Coratti and her team to respond when appropriate.


GLAAD’s response to Tony Perkins’ original piece is completely justified. As many have noted, it had no purpose being in the paper, especially on National Coming Out Day, the day it was published. Set against the backdrop of a spate of youth suicides, paragraphs like this are ill informed and offensive:

Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal—yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are “born gay” and can never change. This—and not society’s disapproval—may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.

Unreported. Unsubstantiated. An irresponsibly printed hunch.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Post was wrong to defend it. Nor does it mean a blanket order should be issued dictating that the WaPo Twitter stream be a bland, unresponsive, and toothless promo tool. Good debate is healthy. The problem here is that the debate wasn’t “good.” The “two sides” defense was plainly offensive. It signals the kind of “stuck in the land before time” attitude that critics say is hobbling the newspaper (see: Weigel, David). The quest for fairness; an old-school, “balanced” treatment of an issue that really doesn’t call for it. The earth is getting hotter; man made it that way. No need to balance that. “Same-sex attractions are abnormal”? Try something better than “two sides.”

That same kind of overly balanced, voice-of-God stuff is what leads to a memo like Narisetti’s. The paper should engage openly with readers when they disagree with an editorial decision. That’s the “social” part of “social networking.” You can’t force Twitter to become the letters page; it’s a completely different tool. Something more interactive and more immediate. It should be used that way.

The problem was the response itself, not that it was made. It might have been better to say something like this:

@GLAAD good point. Did it for balance, but upon reflection, realize the error in judgment. Appreciate the watchful eye. And the debate.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.