The news organization looks for a way to avoid future messes.
Photograph by Evy Mages
Imagine you’re a Washington Post employee with an opinion on whether Washington has America’s best pizza. You’re not on the food desk, but, since you’re a human, you care deeply about pizza. Can you tweet about it?
It’s really not clear, especially after this week. On Sunday, the Post placed reporter Felicia Sonmez on administrative leave for tweeting a link to a story about Kobe Bryant‘s sexual assault allegations after his death. The suspension was predicated on an investigation of whether Sonmez had violated the Post’s social media policy.
This was not an easy task. The Post actually has two social media policies, both of which address the newsroom. The main document for journalists takes the form of guidelines. It was issued in 2011 and looks it: “Post journalists should not accept or place tokens, badges or virtual gifts from political or partisan causes on pages or sites,” for instance. Then in 2017, a new policy that applies to the whole company went into effect. It caused a kerfuffle after the Post‘s newsroom union, the Washington Post Newspaper Guild, protested language that, among other things, prohibited employees from disparaging advertisers and from using social media at work (unless it’s part of their job), as well as encouraging employees to alert Post HR if they think a coworker violated the policy.
The Guild and management worked on that language during subsequent contract negotiations, and the policy, which you can read here, contains a large carvout for editorial employees: not only does it “not supersede” the 2011 document, it prohibits only “maliciously false” statements about Post employees or managers. In other words, as appropriate for a world-class newspaper, employees are permitted to speak the truth.
So what policy, exactly, did Post management believe Sonmez may have violated? That is still not clear from any of the communication that’s followed. The Post‘s first statement, on January 27, said her tweets “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” Not only did that not go over great in the newsroom, the Post subsequently published dozens of pieces about Bryant’s death, which suggests her tweets didn’t exactly hamstring the organization.
The next statement came on January 28–“while we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy,” it said. “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths. We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
That evening, Executive Editor Marty Baron and managing editors Cameron Barr, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, and Tracy Grant sent a note to the newsroom saying the Post‘s social media policies “are in need of an update.” While the “broad outlines of what we expect from the staff are clear,” they wrote, “individual cases that have arisen in recent years indicate to us that further guidance is needed.”
Baron followed that with a memo Thursday, which you can read in full at the end of this post. The Post’s coverage “has been complicated by social media,” Baron wrote. “Especially on the most sensitive stories, we want our coverage to be defined by the reporters and editors who have direct responsibility for it.” In other words, if you’re not covering the death of, say, a major figure in American sports and culture, you should probably pipe down, even if you’re sharing facts, not opinions.
The problem here is, of course, that reporters aren’t interested only in their areas of direct coverage, nor does the Post particularly want them to be. Its Bryant coverage, for instance, roped in staff from Sports, Morning Mix, Style, Opinion, Business, the Tokyo bureau, the videogame vertical, Capital Weather Gang, a transportation reporter, a personal-finance columnist, and a media columnist among others.
It was all hands on deck, as major stories require. The story of Bryant’s life can’t be told just by reeling off his on-court achievements, nor could it be told without noting that he was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman, that charges were dropped, and that he entered into a civil settlement. And as Post opinion columnist Erik Wemple wrote, “if journalists at The Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave.”
Now what? The Guild tells Washingtonian it “looks forward to working with Post management to create a more equitable and updated social media policy that best serves our work and the safety of our employees.” Sonmez, who now has a security detail paid for by the Post, declined to comment about whether she considered Baron’s memo a satisfactory response to this whole mess.
The Post must now come up with a social media policy that somehow codifies management’s squeamishness about reporters expressing opinions and squares it with the imperative to, as Baron wrote, “communicate with followers, conveying information and giving others the benefit of our insights, a window on our personalities and sometimes even the benefit of our wit.”
The Post is filled with stellar minds, so it’s entirely possible it will come up with a policy that anticipates every twist technology and the human imperative to communicate can throw at it over the ensuing years. More likely, though, a document that lasts will have to take the form of guidelines, like the New York Times’, which encourage employees to be their own editors by asking questions like “Would you express similar views in an article on The Times’s platforms?” and “If someone were to look at your entire social media feed, including links and retweets, would they have doubts about your ability to cover news events in a fair and impartial way?” That still leaves plenty of room for, say, a joke about Peppa Pig and Brexit.
Here’s Baron’s memo:
To the staff:
I want to offer some thoughts on the issues that have arisen over the past few days and where we go from here.
First, let me reiterate how proud I am to be associated with the stellar journalism you deliver every day. You do this in a climate that becomes ever more difficult. Your hours seem to get longer, the days more stressful. The news is unrelenting, the pressures constant and deepening. And you confront bad-faith actors who seek only to make trouble and confuse the public about what is true and false.
In this environment, it’s essential that you feel safe and supported. It’s no surprise to you that your stories and social media activity can elicit a strong and often deeply offensive reaction from certain individuals. Sadly, far too often it is threatening, especially for women and journalists of color. Your safety should never be in jeopardy, and we will always do everything possible to make sure it never is.
The Post in recent years has invested heavily in security. The Security department is available to provide immediate assistance. Numerous staffers have received their help. If you are unsure about how to proceed, we are here to guide you.
On the issue of social media, let me address it in general because it is not possible in one note to answer every question.
All of you joined The Washington Post because of its established reputation for journalism of the highest quality and integrity. The Post is more than a collection of individuals who wish to express themselves. It is an institution with a common set of values and principles and a history of appropriate practices. When we cover stories, editors together with reporters and other colleagues agree on an approach that aims to uphold our institutional reputation.
We seek and honor the truth always. We also strive to be fair and furnish context. Routinely our journalism requires sensitivity, empathy and humanity.
The coverage of major breaking stories can be especially fraught. On The Post’s own digital platforms, our coverage takes shape before the public in real time. The opportunities for missteps are great, and so we studiously seek to avoid them. We count on our journalists – collaborating on how to pursue a story and working through sensitive issues together – to ensure that we not only get the facts right but that we get the tone right, too.
Coverage, however, has been complicated by social media. Almost everyone on staff has some sort of social media account, usually more than one. We regularly use those accounts to communicate with followers, conveying information and giving others the benefit of our insights, a window on our personalities and sometimes even the benefit of our wit. All that is welcome (though not required).
Our social media policy calls for staff to keep in mind that social media activity reflects “upon the reputation and credibility” of our newsroom. There are themes that run through that policy: (1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.
Especially on the most sensitive stories, we want our coverage to be defined by the reporters and editors who have direct responsibility for it. We count on staffers to be attuned to how their social media activity will be perceived, bearing in mind that time, place and manner really matter.
We do not want social media activity to be a distraction, and we do not want it to give a false impression of the tenor of our coverage.
It is not always easy to know where to draw the line. That’s a matter deserving of thoughtful discussion — along with how The Post should respond when the line is crossed.
This talented staff successfully makes tough calls every day. We make smart judgments about the content of our stories, the photos and video we use, the headlines we write and much else. We often call upon our colleagues to help us make these judgments. In social media, we need to make considered judgments, too – and consulting colleagues can often be advisable here.
If you’re uncertain about the propriety of a social media post, you can consult with a manager, department head or a managing editor.
In recent months, we have begun to review our social media policy to update its provisions in recognition of how social media has changed since our policy was written in 2011.
How we navigate social media while safeguarding the reputation of The Post for truthful, honest, honorable and humane journalism deserves continued discussion. We want your thoughts on proper practices as well as on what more we can do to ensure your safety, and we will get back to you on how your views will be heard.
The benefits of sound policies will accrue to all of us, and further conversations can help us figure out the proper course. I look forward to hearing more from you.