Washington Post Tells Reporters To Stop Engaging Readers On Twitter

from the how-not-to-connect dept

I’ve occasionally gotten into debates with Techdirt critics on Twitter, and I’ll admit the medium is not all that well-suited for thoughtful debate. But, I have found that it is often a good way to, at least, better understand why someone might be upset about something we said or did, and to perhaps try to address it in some other manner (a separate blog post, email, etc.). Of course, it’s certainly possible to do a bad job of engaging someone via Twitter, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that it’s a mistake to respond to criticism. Yet, it appears that’s what the Washington Post did. It had published a rather ridiculous story from an “anti-gay activist” implying that being gay is a mental health issue, touching on a few recent stories of suicides by several teenagers who were, in some manner, bullied for their homosexuality. Not surprisingly, a gay activist group, GLAAD, complained on Twitter about the article.

The Washington Post’s official Twitter feed tried to defend the story, by claiming that the newspaper was trying to cover “both sides” of the story. As GLAAD correctly pointed out, this was not a story that had “both sides.” It’s unfortunate that so many news organizations appear to believe that there are two (and only two) sides to every story, and are willing to report each equally without ever taking a stand on which is the actual story. Either way, after this exchange, the Washington Post alerted its staffers to no longer engage with the public via Twitter in this manner:

Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.

Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: when we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor–and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do.

Now, this raises some questions. First of all, if part of the purpose is to increase audience engagement, doesn’t that involve… um… engaging? It seems weird to suggest the way to increase user engagement is to avoid engaging. On top of that, the second paragraph just has me shaking my head. Why wouldn’t a newspaper let a reporter publish a rebuttal? Isn’t that what engagement is about? The search for “truth” comes from discussing things with different viewpoints, and it seems like something of a massive cop-out for the Washington Post to say that it will refrain from engaging with those who question its reporting.

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Comments on “Washington Post Tells Reporters To Stop Engaging Readers On Twitter”

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17 Comments
Marcus Carab (profile) says:

I can certainly see their concern about a variety of reporters speaking “for the Post” and then getting embroiled in debates on touchy subjects – that’s the sort of chaos that leads to quotes taken totally out of context, and suddenly other outlets running with the “WashPo Promotes Gay Eugenics” story or something insane like that. So I can see why they would want a clearly defined editorial policy and a certain level of control over what goes out under the guise of official statements.

…but as usual, their knee-jerk reaction to cut off ALL “engagement” is silly and over-the-top. Seems to me like the sensible solution would just be to clearly demarcate what is being said by individual reporters and what is being offered as an overall editorial position.

yourrealname (profile) says:

The whole time I couldn’t help but think about how their sports reporter Mike Wise posted fake information to intentionally mislead other reporters on his Twitter page. I think that was about a month ago. Anyways, seems the Washington Post loves buzz words like “Social Media” and “Engaging” with their audience, but it seems they don’t really like doing those things but feel they have to just to stay up to date and current.

Blamer .. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Employees are bound by their contract from “freely” making public comments on behalf of their employer. Surely that isn’t unique to the Post.

It doesn’t seem to me to be an impingement on “free speech”, that is, of the individual in a personal capacity. Although yes I concede there are surely boundary disputes.

out_of_the_blue says:

This is a point I've mused on, and as seems on topic:

Mike, you don’t seem to grasp DIS-engagement in that personalized responses by staff instantly create *active* enemies. You *should* have noticed that by now.

In specific. the Post doesn’t want gay activists bombarding their system. Regardless of how one views “those people”, they *do* have active circles who monitor sites and respond to any “attacks”, just as Israelis have their “Megaphone” project.

Organized opposition is just never good to have. It’s wise to avoid staff getting into comments. That’s one reason I’m still amazed at ArseTechica staff trolling their own website. That *might* pass among its geeks, but not with those who have a larger agenda.

Sneeje (profile) says:

May be after a pattern of mistakes...

Mike, I don’t have inside information or anything, but I wonder if this isn’t a decision based on a number of mistakes. Recently there was another WP-related twitter issue by a sports writer (Mike Wise) that deliberately posted some false information via twitter that other bloggers, etc. around the US ran with and got burned. Wise says he did it as a joke, but he got suspended (probably deserved if you’re maintaining journalistic standards) from writing for a month.

I’m NOT defending this short-sighted decision, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mike Wise issue made them very gun-shy regarding Twitter.

Unfortunately, they’ve just demonstrated that they aren’t really prepared to move forward with the rest of humanity in the world of social media.

coldbrew says:

Re: May be after a pattern of mistakes...

Wise says he did it as a joke, but he got suspended (probably deserved if you’re maintaining journalistic standards) from writing for a month.

I think that’s really funny. It’s not exactly life altering news, is it?. It is certainly better than trying to go after some blogger for copyright infringement. At some level, it sounds like “fan engagement” to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

c’mon now mike, how long have you been on the interwebz? Do not feed the trolls. It only works if it’s followed damned near a hundred percent. Once you start defending yourself, once you allow us/them to engage you in that manner…it’s over. Not too mention the line about “just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.”
Engaging with the trolls, defending a story, and doing so on behalf of the administration? That’s a /b/tard feeding frenzy waiting to happen

Richard Hack (profile) says:

Speaking of Twitter debates

I just had another slam bang debate with Sharon Corr’s husband, lawyer Gavin Bonnar, on Twitter the other day. He had been ranting as usual about how file sharing had “killed the music industry stone dead” and other nonsense, including that ISPs certainly could track and deny illegal file sharing by their customers. I responded that he was clueless about technology or the state of his own wife’s industry (she believes this stuff, too, BTW – see “Sharon Corr denounces Irish Government inaction on file-sharing”, http://wordpress.hotpress.com/themusicshow/2010/10/05/sharon-corr-denounces-irish-government-inaction-on-file-sharing/). He proceeded to do his usual thoughtful responses which included calling me an “idjit” and a thief, etc., etc. I responded with links to a ton of the articles from this Web site explaining how the industry is not dying and such.

The next day, still smarting from the thrashing I gave him, he actually went to my IT support Web site and quoted my pricing terms to prove that I expected to get paid for my work while stealing from artists. I explained that he apparently didn’t know the difference between work for hire and a state “contract” imposed by fiat.

So, yes, Twitter is hard to debate on. But if you’ve got the links, you just bombard your opponent with facts.

Not that it does any good, of course. These people are as immune to facts as a religious fundamentalist.

Nonetheless I still adore Sharon Corr! She’s gorgeous, talented and nice when it doesn’t involve file sharing.

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