When it comes to how journalists use it, there’s no such thing as ‘Twitter’

I know, I know: a second successive CJR newsletter about Twitter. After writing yesterday about Elon Musk’s surprise entanglement with Twitter, the corporate entity, I didn’t expect to be writing today about Twitter, the bane of our existence (and object of all our desires). Then, yesterday morning, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, sent a memo to staff announcing a significant “reset” around how Times reporters should use the platform. So bear with me.

In the memo, Baquet said that while Twitter can play a “helpful role,” particularly when it comes to “highlighting the concerns of underrepresented groups,” it has also had deleterious effects on the Times, its work, and its staff in four main ways, with journalists over-relying on Twitter echo chambers in their reporting, worrying too much about feedback from other users, damaging the paper’s reputation (and their own) with “off-the-cuff responses,” and suffering there from harassment and attacks. Going forward, the Times will not only make it “purely optional” for its journalists to maintain a Twitter presence (which was previously encouraged, if not enforced) but actively encourage those who want to leave the platform to do so, and those who want to stay to “meaningfully reduce” the time they spend there. Baquet also issued a strong reminder that “tweets or subtweets that attack, criticize or undermine the work of your colleagues” are forbidden under the paper’s social media guidelines, and pledged a “major new initiative” to support staff against online threats. “This is a complicated topic,” he concluded. “Our views have evolved considerably over the last several years. I’m sure they’ll continue to.”

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The Times elaborated on the new guidance in an internal faq document. (“Sometimes I break news on Twitter. Is that bad?”) Baquet also went deeper in an interview with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “I thought it became outsized in its influence,” Baquet said, of Twitter. “I thought that some journalists were, you know, looking to Twitter for validation of their coverage. And I think that gave Twitter more power than, frankly, it deserved.” He added that the paper shouldn’t “run away” from criticism and that “if there’s a place where there are a lot of people talking about your journalism, you should be aware of it. But you should not make that as large a force in your life. You should be on Twitter if you want to be on Twitter—you should just do it a lot less.”

The new guidance, Baquet was keen to stress, “is not an attack on Twitter.” Of course, many observers quickly took it that way, for better or worse, as Baquet’s memo sparked a predictable explosion of Twitter-based discourse about the new guidance and the broader potentialities and pitfalls of journalists using the platform. Various media critics suggested that the Times was, indeed, trying to run away from criticism. In a thread of twenty-three tweets (don’t worry, she understood the irony), the Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle argued that the Times should have gone further and ordered its journalists off the platform entirely, before laying out all the reasons Twitter is bad for journalism. (Number five: “Tweeting occurs in a strange liminal space between oral and written culture.”) The “New York Times Pitchbot” account, which posts satirical Times headlines, posted several more based on the new policy, including: “Opinion | Journalists need to get off Twitter. Here’s why I’m not going to.” Angel Mendoza, a social media editor at the Post, urged followers to post their “cancellable newsroom social media policy take.” New York’s Choire Sicha, a former Times editor, linked to a number of the replies in an article arguing that “Journalism’s Twitter Problem Is the Journalists.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the bits that are specific to the Times. The paper says that it will continue to engage with readers on Twitter and still welcomes “thoughtful criticism of our work”; nonetheless, as many critics have noted, it’s hard to totally square the new feedback guidance with the Times’ decision to scrap its public-editor position in 2017, when it said that social media users now “collectively serve as a modern watchdog.” Baquet has since been publicly dismissive of Twitter criticism, and told Benton yesterday that “Media Twitter” is not an “appropriate judge of the quality of journalism” and that reporters should instead direct more of their attention toward the feedback of their sources. Such feedback, of course, can be very valuable, but—for obvious reasons—it isn’t always; the feedback of “Media Twitter” isn’t always valid either, and Baquet was right when he said that it “shouldn’t be the only judge,” but the idea that people who follow media closely—not to mention work in it—are not “appropriate” judges of the Times’ work is patently ridiculous, and haughty. The new guidance also points out that the New York Times media empire—a luxury, it must be noted, in an industry where most workers must use common tools to build a personal brand—now offers its staff many in-house avenues for reaching readers, from TV shows to podcasts. But these channels, of course, are mediated by the Times. The paper does not need more walls between its reporters and good-faith critics.

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The new guidance states that Times journalists who use Twitter to criticize their colleagues are liable to “exacerbate criticism from outside the Times” and “stoke and legitimize harassment and online attacks,” before also noting that this stance “of course” does not restrict their legal rights to speak out about employment issues like harassment and discrimination. The law notwithstanding, the lines here seem blurry to me. While outright abuse is clearly unacceptable, one person’s “uncollegial behavior,” as the Times puts it, is another’s public accountability—and while preventing harassment is a worthy goal, it is not the same thing as seeking to shield the Times from outside criticism. In 2020, when many Times staffers publicly protested the paper’s running of an op-ed that called on Trump to send troops into racial-justice protests, they were both criticizing an editorial decision and speaking out about a workplace issue, arguing that the op-ed put Black staff in danger. Pressed by Benton yesterday, Baquet wouldn’t say whether the new policy would ban such a protest. He did suggest that opinion writers are included in the directive against criticizing one another, though apparently it is “in their realm” to engage publicly with columnists at other papers. It’s hard not to see this as arbitrary.

Nor is Twitter, or social media more broadly, the only vehicle by which Times journalists might publicly criticize their colleagues; they can also do so via anonymous quotes in media stories or (unwittingly) right-wing sting videos. This points to a broader problem with any so-called Twitter policy: that, as I noted yesterday, there is no clear boundary between Twitter and the real world. (Getting off Twitter, for example, is not a failsafe against having your work or your character attacked there, or anywhere else for that matter.) Another problem with such policies, as I’ve written before, is that they have often struggled to codify competing impulses—encouraging staff to use social media to connect with readers while often banning them from posting about the basic human emotions, experiences even, through which connections are made. The new Times policy strips back the former imperative, but not in a way that unchains the latter.

Ultimately, debates about how journalists use Twitter often founder when they treat “Twitter” as a single thing. Sure, as a platform, it has general incentive structures and limitations—from its algorithm to its nuance-crushing character limit—that can be bad for journalism; I often find myself physically grating my teeth as I scroll down my feed. But saying that Twitter as a whole is bad for journalism is a bit like saying that water is bad for swimming—water is noticeably different from land, but there’s a lot of it, it’s hard to pin down, and the quality isn’t the same everywhere. Spending all your time in it is usually ill-advised, as is worrying too much about the sharks, and you can certainly wash up against a whole lot of garbage. But it can also be refreshing; you might even dive deep and find a pearl. To step away from the tortured analogy, Twitter can give journalists a window onto worlds far from their real-life echo chambers and can serve as a powerful search engine—a stray fact or thought, tucked in a corner somewhere, can open up a story. Whether Twitter is good for journalism depends, ultimately, on how you use it.

In fairness to the Times, this conclusion isn’t incompatible with the letter of its new advice, and in fairness to Baquet, he has acknowledged my latter points, calling Twitter “a big deal reporting tool” in the context of the Ukraine war, for example. My criticisms about feedback and accountability notwithstanding, he deserves credit for telling his staff explicitly that they don’t have to use Twitter if they don’t want to. (Again, whether this option is truly open to journalists without a media empire to promote their work for them is another question.) As Benton and others note, however, the spirit of the new guidance—and in some places its letter—go too far the other way. Just as some people use swimming to build up their muscles and a few even do it professionally, some beats involve covering conversations that happen prolifically, if not primarily, on Twitter. Numerous science journalists and public health experts have told me, for example, that Twitter transformed the sharing of cutting-edge science during the pandemic.

Equally, some of the things that seem to annoy Baquet the most about Twitter—reporters wasting their time there, for instance, and failing to broaden their horizons beyond their feed—are real problems. But they are not limited to Twitter; when journalists’ speech on the platform truly crosses a line, for example, it’s because their speech was ill-advised, not because they did it on a particular platform. The good points in the Times’ new guidance could easily be covered by a “bad journalism” policy. Ironically, in limiting its lens to Twitter, it falls into the Twitter-obsession trap that the Times is telling its journalists to avoid.

And with that, I won’t write about Twitter here ever again. Maybe.

Below, more on Twitter (dammit):

  • Online safety: In addition to Baquet’s memo and its accompanying faq, Times staffers received a note yesterday from Cliff Levy, a deputy managing editor, elaborating on the paper’s pledge to better protect its journalists from online harassment. (Benton has the full text of all three memos here.) Levy laid out existing resources available to Times journalists and said that the paper would be expanding its offerings in four areas: “Newsroom-specific onboarding for journalists joining the Times, mandatory safety and security training for editors, desk-specific training and resources ahead of high-risk events, and expanded mental health resources and support.”
  • “Never tweet”: Last year, Ben Smith, then the media columnist at the Times, commissioned a poll of Americans’ views as to whether journalists should shut up on social media. (The results were messy.) “Twitter has occupied an uncomfortable place between journalists and their bosses for more than a decade. It offers journalists both a newswire and a direct line back into the news cycle. But it has also set off a tug of war between the voice of the brand and of the individual,” Smith noted. “Newsrooms might benefit from acknowledging that some of what appears to be debates about Twitter is more about their own corporate identities and choices.”
  • Twitter, the company: According to the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin, Musk, who this week became Twitter’s largest shareholder and gained a seat on the company’s board, will do a Q&A session with staffers, many of whom have internally expressed concern about his intentions and possible influence going forward. “Town halls where employees can ask direct, pointed questions of senior leadership are a long-standing Silicon Valley tradition and take place regularly at Facebook, Google and Twitter,” Dwoskin notes. “But hosting a board member at one is rare.” (Twitter has insisted that board members can’t set policy.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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