Our creaky social media policies are no match for today’s trolls

Read enough social-media policies, and you’ll wonder if you’ve torn a page out of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. The New York Times tells its staff that if they “engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” The Associated Press warns employees that they “must be mindful that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news.”

But is there evidence to back this up? And if there isn’t, perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative universe, where reporters’ tweets and statements––for the most part––don’t have much effect on how people view their news organizations. 

Social media can operate like a carnival mirror, offering a contorted view that makes that day’s outrage seem like the most consequential thing in the world, at least to the slice of the globe that is following along. Most everyone else usually remains oblivious.

Ask Emily Wilder, a twenty-two-year-old journalist who had just begun working at the AP last month when a series of cascading events ended with her termination as a news associate in the Phoenix bureau. On May 15, Israeli forces blew up a building that held the AP’s Gaza headquarters, claiming it also housed Hamas military intelligence. The next day, Wilder tweeted that “‘objectivity’ feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly stake a claim. using ‘israel’ but never ‘palestine,’ or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation’ are political choices.”

Then, the Republican chapter at her alma mater, Stanford University, surfaced some of her college posts and activities, including some sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. That file got weaponized by right-wing outlets like the Washington Free Beacon and politicians like US Sen. Tom Cotton. The AP quickly fired Wilder, saying she had violated its social-media policy. Within days, Wilder fired back, criticizing the AP for its willingness to, as she put it, “sacrifice those with the least power to the cruel trolling of a group of anonymous bullies.”

Many journalists––including more than 150 of Wilder’s colleagues––took the AP to task for how it handled the case, but a lot of newsrooms have faced similar difficulties adapting their creaky social-media policies to the current moment. The Washington Post floundered while critiquing a staffer for her tweet after Kobe Byrant’s death, and the Times fired an editor after she posted some pro-Biden comments. Newsroom managers are struggling to figure out the statute of limitations on past posts, as The Atlantic showed when its editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, cut ties with a conservative columnist after his anti-abortion tweet (and related podcast) from four years earlier surfaced.

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The motives for these actions may have been well-intentioned at some point, but they’re a poor fit for this new age of Google-twitchy trolls hunting for pretexts to put newsrooms on the defensive while blowing up reporters’ careers. “We live in a world where there’s any number of people who are going to be searching for reasons to distrust us,” says Wesley Lowery, a 60 Minutes Plus correspondent who wrote a seminal op-ed on journalists and objectivity last year. “The inclination for decades has been to contort ourselves to game out any potential way that any ghastly human could ever doubt us,” he told me. “Maybe we can have a little more confidence in ourselves and our work than that.”

When newsroom social-media policies were first crafted, most employees didn’t have much of a public record to peruse. So the typical policy was “an extension of, ‘Don’t put bumper stickers on your car,’” says Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, a bible of ethics in the news business. “We’re in a different place now, and as an industry, I don’t think we’ve sorted through that.” 

Wilder’s comments on the Middle East seem far removed from her work on stories about the American West. Rosenstiel sees this as another area where news organizations must retool their policies: “We need to define what kind of speech gets you kicked off your beat, and what kind of speech makes you unemployable. It’s not just having an opinion,” he says. “Could you be an anti-vaxxer and cover baseball? I don’t see why not.” The AP seems less sure about that. The managing editor, Brian Carovillano, told CNN’s Brian Stelter recently that “Twitter is not local,” and added that Wilder might’ve been asked to cover a local protest over the Middle East. (Carovillano did not respond to requests for comment.)

As they rethink their policies, news organizations must come to grips with their own mixed messages. Most of them encourage staffers to be active on social media as a way of finding sources, building community, and driving traffic. Gannett’s USA Today Network puts it this way: “Social media is an important part of how we, as a company, communicate with the public, our consumers, and advertisers…. In fact, social media is transforming every aspect of society and is proving to be an enormous opportunity for the Network.”

But Twitter fame carries its own risks for management. Journalists adept at social media are learning that their fortunes are no longer so closely tethered to their newsroom’s. They watch their value rising on the open market, where their large followings can easily be transported to their next jobs. (Wilder’s own Twitter feed has exploded from around a thousand followers six months ago to almost a hundred thousand now.) Lowery says that punitive actions can flow from that changing dynamic: “The masthead used to have one hundred percent of the power, and now they’ve lost like twenty percent of their power. And they’re freaking out about it.”

At their core, social-media policies are about reputations––of individual journalists, to be sure, but also of the news organizations that are employing them. While most newsrooms understand that their reporters are thinking, sentient human beings, they have a harder time dealing with the idea that those same people want to express their views to the world. As Wilder told me, “Being transparent could only increase our credibility, rather than pretending like we’re automatons.”

We don’t really know how much long-term trouble errant social-media posts can cause. There’s some research on the relationship between social media and newsrooms’ reputational risk, but much of it is contradictory or inconclusive. Usually, it takes a serious journalism crime to cause significant reputational damage, like making up sources (Stephen Glass/The New Republic), plagiarism (Jayson Blair/the New York Times), or botching a huge story (the Iraq War/too many to list). 

There are, of course, scenarios when a staffer could be such a boor, such a bigot or such an idiot on social media that their posts will reflect badly on the newsroom. That’s the kind of behavior that should generate a reprimand, or worse. And there’s always a risk of this. 

But there are also risks in promoting opaque policies, enforcing capricious management decisions, and incentivizing bad-faith critics to escalate their gotcha games. 

Newsrooms need to look afresh at their policies, and do it the same way they expect their reporters to cover their beats––based on evidence and experience, rather than fear of outcomes that have yet to occur. And they must think about it in a way that keeps pace with the era. “A lot of newsrooms want a list of rules: ‘I can’t tweet this, I can’t tweet that,’” says Lowery. “I don’t think those policies work. In the place of policies, there need to be values.”

 

Thanks to Jacob Nelson and Logan Molyneux, assistant professors at Arizona State and Temple universities respectively, for their help in researching this issue.

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).