Journalists who build followings online, in part by being incisive, combative, funny and omnipresent on Twitter, are often hired because of that exposure — because they’re a known quantity.
At a larger organization, though, those same attributes may quickly be seen as a liability. Publications hire diverse outspoken writers and then get anxious when these writers start tweeting about politics. Some outlets ask staffers who don’t cover incendiary beats like politics to refrain from commenting on political goings-on. But what happens when politics touches everything? For those who’ve made a name being outspoken, suddenly saying nothing is a statement in itself. For newsroom leaders the questions get tough, fast. Few if any outlets seem to want to draw exact lines. And so they become blurred.
There’s also a double standard. While few publications would say it, it’s all but required for young journalists to jump into the culture war online. It’s a way to find stories. And in a volatile industry it gets you noticed. Being “part of the discourse” each day means being marketable. It helps writers, but it also bolsters publications, helping promote big stories and creating all kinds of dystopian forms of content like “microscoops,” or breaking news too small to merit its own article but enough to tout to competitors on Twitter.
This exposure is a drug for journalists. The real-time sparring and feedback is seductive, and the endorphin boosts of constant mentions is addictive. But it’s also exposure in the truest sense: great visibility and great vulnerability blended seamlessly together.
Though an argument could be made that all the time-wasting, in-jokes and gaffes from idle reporters and editors on Twitter subtly undermine the rigorous parts of the work, newsrooms benefit greatly from the constant exposure of their journalists. Reporters use Twitter to poke and prod sources. Writers sometimes enhance their stories with long tweet threads that explain the reporting process. And reporters build trust with audiences by including or signaling to their audience perspectives in their online analysis (Ms. Sonmez, who has come forward with details of her own sexual assault, told her colleague Erik Wemple that her tweets were, in part, to make survivors like herself who follow her feel seen). When important news breaks, newsrooms claim credit when their reporters break it first on Twitter.
Which is why The Post’s statement, especially its urging of restraint, is so fraught. The same editors who want restraint from reporters online during a celebrity death would most likely also be furious if their Capitol Hill reporters were slow in live-tweeting a hearing or impeachment proceeding and fell behind the competition. Restraint is a virtue in journalism, no doubt, but so are tenacity and transparency. The message is contradictory: Broadcast everything, but exercise restraint. Twitter isn’t real life, but tweets can and will get you fired or suspended.
But these qualities have been in conflict and competition for long before Twitter and newsrooms understood a journalist’s exposure during breaking news and had their backs accordingly. Evidence suggests that’s not always the case in the face of a cascade of online outrage. That’s less a change in the industry than it is a failure of newsroom leaders to understand the information war it sends its journalists out to fight in each day.
This content was originally published here.