Why the NYT is wrong to put a social-media muzzle on its journalists

Watching traditional media outlets grapple with the unfiltered nature of social media has been a little like watching a bear try to pick up a porcupine — some have been tentative, others have tried to lock social-media use down as much as possible, and some have been stung and reacted badly. The New York Times is one of the few that has not felt it necessary to draft a restrictive new policy on Twitter and Facebook use, but now it has done something that is arguably even worse, by appointing an editor to oversee the tweets and status updates of its Jerusalem bureau chief after some of her comments raised hackles. Do newspapers really need to hamstring their journalists this way?

According to a blog post from NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s new Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren — who has covered Washington and other beats, and moved to the Middle East to start coverage for the Times earlier this year — had a “rocky start” to her new job as a result of some comments she made on Twitter and Facebook (s fb). Among other things, she was criticized for praising a book about Zionism, for linking to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper (without comment) and “schmoozing” with a Palestinian activist, and for making what some felt were insensitive remarks on Facebook about the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Will every reporter now get a social-media editor?

In her post, Sullivan praises Rudoren for being “responsive to readers [and] spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style.” But those positive qualities then quickly get turned into negatives, as the public editor goes on to say that the Jerusalem bureau chief is also “not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting… in one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism.” Says Sullivan:

“Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key. The result is very likely to be problematic.”

The result of all this is that Rudoren gets what amounts to a social-media editor of her own: an editor from the newspaper’s foreign desk has been assigned to “work closely” with the Jerusalem bureau chief on what she posts to Twitter and Facebook. The idea, says Sullivan, is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers “while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.” According to the public editor, this is a necessary step because the alternative would be to ignore social media altogether, and this would be unwise.

But is that really the only alternative the NYT had in this case — to ban its Jerusalem bureau chief from social media completely? Perhaps we should be grateful that the newspaper didn’t fire her immediately, as CNN did its senior editor and veteran Middle East analyst Octavia Nasr in 2010, after a single tweet in which she expressed admiration for a deceased Hezbollah leader. At the time, I wrote about how this showed a complete lack of understanding of the benefits of social media for journalists, despite the potential risks of criticism like Rudoren has been experiencing.

When I criticized the NYT’s latest move on Twitter, a former newspaper editor I know asked me why it mattered so much that a reporter’s tweets might be reviewed and potentially edited (or censored, depending on your viewpoint) by someone at the Times. After all, he said, newspaper stories are edited — so why not tweets and Facebook posts?

The problem, as John Cook has pointed out at Gawker, is that social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook get the vast majority of their power from the fact that they are what Margaret Sullivan seems to want to protect us from: namely, the unedited and unfiltered thoughts and opinions of a journalist. The more you edit them and try to filter out or smooth over all the bumps and blemishes, the more you rob them of that power — the power to connect human beings to other human beings as directly as possible. At that point, you might as well not do it at all.

It’s okay for journalists to be human beings

I understand that the Middle East is a powder keg — even Sullivan herself has inadvertently proven this, by adding a description to her blog post about Rudoren that one Palestinian activist says defamed him and requires an apology. So what is the appropriate response to what Rudoren did in that kind of environment?

The Times seems to feel that it needs to homogenize and sterilize its correspondent’s views as much as possible, so as not to risk offending anyone unnecessarily. But it should be obvious to just about anyone that virtually any comment at all is going to offend someone in that kind of situation. Why not allow its bureau chief to discover those limits and danger zones herself, in real time, in the full view of the newspaper’s readers? Will this be uncomfortable, possibly even painful? Yes. Will it also be valuable and potentially positive in the long term? I believe that it will.

The reason why there is so much sound and fury about media transparency and allowing reporters to express opinions like normal human beings is that the idea of journalistic objectivity has become a fig leaf of epic proportions: readers arguably don’t believe in it (if they ever have), and therefore they assume that journalists have opinions they are simply hiding or pretending not to have. Could that be why public trust in the media continues to be so consistently abysmal?

What the foreign editor of the NYT should say to his new Jerusalem bureau chief is exactly what Katie Rosman has said she was told by a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal about using social media: namely, don’t be stupid. And more than that, he should tell Rudoren that she has his full support in trying to find a balancing act between being open about her opinions and taking heat for them — and that the paper believes it is an important battle worth fighting, regardless of the public flak that ensues.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hoggarazi and Rosaura Ochoa