Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander recently wrote about the tweets
of one Post
editor, Raju Narisetti, and how the editor's decision to close a Twitter account coincided with the release of newsroom guidelines for using online social networks. But were Narisetti's tweets really a runaway train or a teachable moment?
Narisetti had quipped on Twitter:
"We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad."
"Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from 'standing up too quickly.' How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.
Alexander acknowledged that Narisetti's tweets were "pretty innocuous" for Twitter, but the problem was that they were posted by one of the paper's managing editors. Alexander wrote: "In today's hyper-sensitive political environment, Narisetti's tweets could be seen as one of The Post's
top editors taking sides on the question of whether a health-care reform plan must be budget neutral. On Byrd, his comments could be construed as favoring term limits or mandatory retirement for aging lawmakers. Many readers already view The Post
with suspicion and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage. The tweets could provide ammunition."
All true. But who hasn't
posted words they wish they could recall or recast? To assume social media requires journalistic sainthood before reporters and editors participate is like saying newspapers should close if they ever retract a story. Mistakes in social media happen and are as embarrassing as a politician saying something reckless when she thought the mic was off. But do verbal (or written) gaffes end by mandating silence? Will social media sterility actually attract people? News flash: Robotic tweets soaked in what newsroom managers decree as objectivity will not woo the audiences newspapers crave.
Readers, followers, friends and contacts on social media sites have little reason to effectively engage with journalists without some degree of transparency. News consumers pass over mundane stories served like indiscernible casseroles at a cafeteria. They want connections within their dynamic world and interactions with shrewd journalists who can harvest meaty stories from those networks. News consumers want to groan at their iPhone when they're scanning a compelling story while waiting in the grocery checkout line or burst out laughing at a Facebook post while at lunch in their work cubicle. They want to rush to city hall, fully informed, after learning from a socially linked reporter that a new initiative will negatively affect their neighborhood.
Newsrooms may feel uncomfortable with this interactive intensity, but engagement on the Internet is a requirement, not a suggestion. Unless newspapers grasp that, their internal resistance to change will block the innovation they desperately need. Let journalists pioneer unknown territory. Quickly and publicly correct mistakes and wrong approaches that violate core values. But at all times recognize that in this current information economy, people expect journalists to be fair
, not objective, authentic
, not devoid of human feeling. Besides, most trained journalists know the boundaries and, as their presence matures in social media, credible journalists will walk the line of wisdom -- just as most of them did long before former Vice President Al Gore "invented" the Internet.