Social media crackdowns at the Times and Journal will backfire

October 20, 2017
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The relationship between media outlets and social platforms like Twitter has always been tense. On some level, publishers know they have to be on social media, because that’s where the news happens, and it’s also where content gets shared—but at the same time, they are afraid of what might happen if reporters and editors speak their minds.

The New York Times waded back into this particular swamp when it introduced an update to its social-media guidelines earlier this month, and reinforced the fact that its journalists are not to express any “partisan opinion” on social. The Times also noted that while reporters might be using these accounts on their personal time, anything said on them is the purview of the paper because of their association with it.

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Not to be outdone, The Wall Street Journal this week released an update to its social-media policy. It reiterated the existing prohibition against “posting partisan comments on social networking sites,” and added that the paper’s management believes some reporters and editors “are spending too much time tweeting.”

The first downside of these kinds of policies is that they won’t actually achieve what publishers want them to achieve: Convincing readers their journalists aren’t biased. The second—and possibly even more important—drawback is they’ll prevent media outlets from using social media to its full potential. That could cause far more long-term harm than a rowdy tweet about Trump’s IQ or Cheeto-colored visage.

The impetus for these statements is hardly a mystery. The Times has come under fire (from the president and others) for being anti-Trump, and the paper’s editors are no doubt hoping to mitigate some of that by preventing reporters from tweeting anti-Trump diatribes. The Journal, meanwhile, has been criticized for being pro-Trump.

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In other words, these new policies amount to damage control. The Times guidelines say tweets that editorialize on the news “undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom,” and the Journal‘s statement says such behavior “erodes the hard-won trust of our readers.” Everyone must be scrupulously objective, or at least appear that way.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this. One is that only a vanishingly small number of people likely believe that reporters at the Times and Journal are objective anyway—or that they are even trying to be. Most probably feel that each outlet is biased in a variety of ways, and they probably didn’t get that idea from a reporter’s tweets.

And what qualifies as partisan: A belief that the president shouldn’t repeatedly lie? A belief that black lives matter? These policies are likely to further smother voices that need to be heard, like those of women and people of color, who are already poorly represented in media.

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A debate over whether true objectivity is even possible, let alone desirable, would require a much longer discussion. But suffice it to say the social-media train has probably already left the station, much as newspaper editors might like it to return.

Those who believe the Times is out to get Trump, or the Journal is out to prop him up, are unlikely to change their minds simply because reporters and editors revert to robotic tweets that contain nothing but the facts and a link their editors are hoping someone will click so they can make their monthly numbers.

To the extent that social media works—allowing media outlets and journalists to connect with their readers and/or viewers, and readers to both promote and provide feedback on journalism—it works because it is social. And being social means being human, and being human means expressing opinions, and in some cases being wrong.

It’s understandable that many newsrooms are grappling with the dividing line between reporting and opinion, which seems increasingly blurry even in print nowadays. But social-media rules requiring journalists to express no opinion at all aren’t going to solve that problem.

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.

This flawed approach is even more dangerous for publishers who, like the Times and the Journal, are relying increasingly on subscriptions, membership fees, and other relationship-based models for their continued economic survival.

How do you convince people to support you in such a way? By building a relationship with them, one that encourages them to believe you share a worldview, or at least that you can be trusted. And how do you do that? Not by pretending you have no opinions, but by being as honest as possible—asking for feedback and admitting when you make a mistake. In other words, by being human.

Is this messy? Yes. Could it blow up in your face? Definitely. But trying to pretend your reporters are not human beings actually encourages readers to trust you less, not more. And that could be fatal.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.