As publishers rethink editorial norms, social media policies must follow

Photo: Adobe Stock

This article is excerpted from the Tow Center’s weekly newsletter. To stay updated about the Tow Center’s work on how technology is changing journalism, subscribe here

At one of the most tumultuous times in US domestic political history, news organisations are struggling with key questions about both their internal practices and their purpose in a changed world. This weekend, James Bennet, the senior opinion editor at the New York Times, resigned as a result of an inflammatory op-ed authored by conservative US Senator Tom Cotton under the initial headline “Send In the Troops.” Bennet at first defended the column, which he later admitted he had not read. Yet a statement from the Times which said the piece did not meet editorial standards and an apparent U-turn in support from publisher Arthur G. Sulzberger made Bennet’s departure inevitable.  

In a similar flashpoint, Stan Wischnowski, a top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned last weekend after the newspaper ran the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” which provoked a number of staff to walk out, as it drew an offensive equivalence between damage to buildings caused by civil unrest and deaths of black citizens at the hands of violent police. 

New York Times columnist Ben Smith swept up the problems at his own paper along with those in other newsrooms, including the Washington Post, pointing to the slowly changing demographics within newsrooms as a key reason for growing internal pressure to change editorial practices and norms. He cited an internal document from the Post which reviewed social media practices at the paper. Rather blandly entitled “Recommendations for Social Media Use on the National Desk,” the document lays out a series of problems familiar to many newsrooms. Editors addicted to commissioning and reacting to Twitter before considering their own staff’s points of view, a two-tiered system of censure on social media (one rule for the older whiter male staff members, another for the younger female and non-white staff), and a general confusion over how and why the Post uses social media in the first place.

Within the long and detailed document, which was the result of interviews with national desk reporters and editors, there are recommendations for more detailed and up-to-date social media policies which include the views and perspectives of staff members who are more well-versed with social platforms. The Post’s document carries many recommendations about how reporters and editors ought to use platforms like Twitter. However, it touches only briefly on how the presence of social media should reform the core outputs of the Post itself:

  • Police opinionated content not only on social media, but also in stories. Consider the effect of giving prominent homepage play to analyses with strong points of view.

While Twitter has a small user base when compared to other platformsmere hundreds of millions compared to over two billion on Facebookit remains a central conduit for politicians, reporters, and other official sources, and therefore has a disproportionate hold over both newsroom attention and how coverage is shaped. It is a platform which integrates easily and frequently into every part of the news media, so its impact far outruns its direct user numbers. The prolific use of Twitter by President Donald Trump has only elevated its influence in US newsrooms. The desire of many journalists to spend less time on Twitter is met with the harsh reality that absence from the platform can work to their career disadvantage. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The relationship between journalism and social platforms needs a thorough rethinking from both sides. While the New York Times staff expressed frustration and outrage that the newspaper would provide a platform for incendiary views such as Cotton’s, the bigger question might be why, when there are so many other platforms available, should news media provide an unmediated platform for a sitting politician at all? Those of use who worked in the news during the 1990s and 2000s are familiar with the arguments that a breadth of opinion in op-ed pages shows a pluralistic outlook that supports free speech, and that those principles should not be tempered by the external pressures of a noisy social platform. However, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms that enable politicians to communicate directly with large audiences, the role of the newsroom necessarily has to change. Once, the New York Times deemed it acceptable to run excerpts from Mein Kampf in order to illustrate Adolf Hitler’s approach to propaganda. In 2004, the Guardian ran a column by Osama bin Laden calling for Jihad on a similar basis. A lack of alternative routes to audience allowed news organisations to justify publishing unmediated agendas without considering the wider influence of the pieces, or their implied endorsement of those views. 

If there is any benefit for journalism to the shift in media control from press institutions to platforms as gatekeepers, it is that news organizations can deploy resources more thoughtfully in this regard. Calls to limit violent or offensive views in op-ed pages echo recent debates about content moderation policies at social media companies. The internal pushback to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg after the platform left up a statement from Donald Trump that incited violence against protesters (even after other platforms including Twitter had flagged it) shows that the blurred lines of speech governance are as vexed for the new gatekeepers as they were for the old ones. 

Social media policies, in as much as they exist, tend to assume there is a well-understood hard bright line between content published on social media and content published in a news publisher’s own outlet. Therefore, guidelines still focus on journalists’ behavior and language on social media first, and the interplay between ‘core’ editorial output and social platforms second. As a result, much of what happens in newsrooms in relation to social media is often left to personal impulse and free from policy. “Share” buttons on articles are universally applied without much thought as to what their effect might be. Punctuation, carefully crafted by copy editors, is often stripped out and lost on social platforms in ways that fundamentally alter the way a piece is perceived. If a newsroom’s style guide included the recommendation “Do not place a headline on a piece you would not write yourself in a tweet,” then both the Cotton piece and the Philadelphia Inquirer article would have been presented differently, even if their fundamental flaws remained. 

Social media policies are hard to find on many publishers’ platforms, and even where they exist in some detail, such as at the BBC or the New York Times, they are both out of date and inadequate. As the Post’s document showed, reporters want more rather than less guidance on how to work on social platforms. In perhaps an early sign that the tides are changing, the BBC has brought back former head of news Richard Sambrook to review the corporation’s rules and use of social media in the newsroom. Perhaps the most critical piece of thinking is still to be done on what the real relationship is between the platform aspects of news publishing and the publishing aspects of social platforms, and how new and old media can work together to both inform democracy and strengthen journalistic integrity.    

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.