Racism and sexism at... the Washington Post?

How free should journalists be to weigh in on hotly debated topics on social media? There’s clearly room to have that debate, but if major media outlets have a policy regulating such speech, you’d think it would need to be clearly defined and applied evenly across the board. But at the Washington Post, according to some recently leaked internal staff communications, that’s probably not the case. It turns out that the Post has recently disciplined some reporters for sounding off on Twitter, but the application of the guidelines is reportedly not being applied equally along racial and gender lines. And most of the reporters aren’t happy about it. (Nieman Lab)

Last year, then–Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was formally admonished for expressing his views on Twitter. At the beginning of this year, Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended, then reinstated, for tweeting about Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations. The incidents exposed a company grappling with what its social media policy for reporters should be at a time when news breaks first on Twitter, reporters’ personal brands are seen as crucial for building relationships with readers in an increasingly subscriber-driven business, and notions of “objectivity” (and its value) are shifting rapidly.

To help address some of these issues, The Post in February tasked a group of National Desk staffers with writing a report analyzing the paper’s social media policy. The committee surveyed more than 50 Post reporters and ultimately found “near universal desire for a policy that is clearer and more specific about staffers’ responsibilities and limitations in using social media, as well as management’s obligations to employees’ security and equitable enforcement of the rules.”

As the report goes on to explain, Ben Smith got hold of an internal memo from the WaPo newsroom related to the disciplinary measures described above. He released some key portions of it on Twitter.

Huh. Imagine that. Our social justice betters who regularly lecture the rest of us about racial and gender equality seem to be falling short of those lofty goals in their own offices. One portion of the memo that Smith posted seems particularly telling.

“Many feel as though there is a two-tiered system allowing some reporters to tweet things that would get others in trouble. Reporters said that white, male reporters often get away with potentially problematic messages, while female and minority colleagues are not given the benefit of the doubt. “People who are stars get away with murder,” one person said. “It’s frustrating to me that I can see some of my male colleagues tweeting and Instagramming about drinking and going to parties and hanging out with politicos outside the office and being chummy with other political reporters at other places and that’s ok,” another reporter said. “But if a woman is being public about being a sexual assault survivor or if a reporter of color calls out problems that they see in our industry, that that’s not okay.”

Not to put too fine of a point on this, but these sound like exactly the same complaints we hear from workers in other industries who are then called out by the Washington Post for being racist and sexist. And it’s not just the WaPo either. You may recall the recent story we covered regarding some similar incidents at the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Black, female reporter there published a column complaining about how she and other females/minority reporters were paid less money and advanced in their careers more slowly than their white, male colleagues.

It’s almost as if the newsrooms of our major newspapers have failed to remove the beam out of their own eye before calling to remove the speck out of their brother’s eye. Imagine that.

I’ll just say that I follow a lot of reporters on Twitter, both from newspapers and television news outlets. The complaints being aired in that memo are not hard to believe, but it also seems to vary a bit from outlet to outlet and it depends on the specific assignments the reporters have. Opinion journalists and opinion editors are a lot more free with their opinions, as you might expect. But even some of the news reporters, particularly from the NBC family of outlets, seem to be pretty free with their thoughts. I’ve has some of them go so far as to even engage me in (mostly) good-natured debates over issues that were strictly matters of opinion.

Honestly, I never really thought that much about it or let it bother me. I assume that most of the newsrooms are staffed almost entirely by liberals and that trend colors everything from the wording they choose to the topics they select to report on. (Or fail to report on, as the case may be.) But I do have to agree with the people quoted in that memo. If you’re going to have rules for some, they need to be the rules for all.

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