Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
It continues to amaze me how social media, and social media policies, bedevil news organizations. A year ago, I wrote about how we tend to both overthink and underthink this problem, about how we need not longer and more complex policies, but simpler ones that reflect why such guidance is necessary. That continues to be my view.
But in recent weeks, two other issues have come to the fore that this prescription doesn’t address, and I’d like to devote this column to them. The first issue is what limits, if any, should be placed on social media criticism of one’s own colleagues; the second is whether journalists would be better off if they limited their Twitter habit, or broke it altogether.
There is no question that public criticism of co-workers, either for the world to see on social media or even on Slack in large and far-flung organizations, makes a workplace more tense and less pleasant. There is also no question that there ought to be some venue for pointing out mistakes you think colleagues are making, especially if those mistakes transcend either you own values or the values the organization claims or aims to embody.
Here's the hard part: if co-workers repeatedly use social media to air such complaints, one of two things must be happening: Either it’s become too hard or too scary to dissent privately, or you have the wrong people on staff. Or both.
Whose fault is it?
First things first. Before managers start disciplining people for open intramural conflict, they need to ask themselves why the disputes were not first brought to them privately. Are the complaints legitimate? If so, have similar matters been addressed effectively in the past? Does the staff know that? (You may not want to name names, but communicating when particular conduct is unacceptable is one of the ways to avoid recurrence.) Are standards being applied evenly, regardless of rank, and certainly of race and gender?
If management passes these tests, we should all acknowledge that taking it on yourself to publicly attack co-workers is uncivil, and sometimes just plain nasty. In the realm of social media, unfortunately, it can also be performative. People who can’t resist such temptations are not the ones any of us should want to share a newsroom with. There are enough trolls out there already-- hey, one of them may be about to buy Twitter-- not to want more inside the house.
The second issue of the day is whether Twitter has become so toxic overall, or just so distracting, that less of it would be more for journalists. That has become the view of newsroom management at the New York Times, and almost surely also of others.
I wouldn’t begin to dispute that the toxicity exists, or that social media can become a distraction, shortening attention spans, airing views that have been inadequately considered, rewarding heat over light, sometimes facilitating harassing or bullying, occasionally inciting violence. I certainly wouldn’t require reporters or others to participate in such an arena.
On the other hand
At the same time, it seems important not to lose track of one of the key values of social media for journalists: engagement with readers.
It was a great shame when comments on stories became so full of garbage that most sites gave up policing and instead disabled them. We lost a wonderful new way to get quick feedback on stories, to learn of errors, to build community. Twitter can and does play a similar role.
To say that reactions on Twitter are unrepresentative (which they definitely are) doesn’t mean they aren’t real—comments and letters to the editor have always also been unrepresentative. Gauging the reaction of the silent majority of readers has always been difficult, but it doesn’t get easier when we choose to ignore or silence the vocal minority.
Many if not most of our colleagues clearly understand both sides of the argument here. A Pew study released last week said that two thirds of all journalists saw the impact of social media on journalism as negative, but more than three quarters of those who used it (and almost all do) found it helpful for both connecting with audiences and finding stories to cover— as well as for story promotion and identification of sources.
One of my greatest concerns these days is that our newsrooms, to be sure while dealing with important issues, have become excessively self-regarding. Yes, we need to get our own houses in order. But what we don’t need are fewer ways to hear from our readers, and less attention to what they are thinking, and how they experience our work. (This is why eliminating public editor jobs is and was a mistake.) I would support any intelligent effort to listen more closely to those readers not inclined to volunteer their reactions. But I also want us to stay in touch with those who are.
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You write "if co-workers repeatedly use social media to air such complaints, one of two things must be happening: Either it’s become too hard or too scary to dissent privately, or you have the wrong people on staff. Or both." But there's a third scenario, which is that the institution ignores dissent generally or specifically. In some cases, with some issues, bringing public pressure on the organization, repeatedly is the only way to get it addressed.