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In Defense of the Times’ New Social-Media Rules

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

It’s easy to decry employer rules about social-media use. The last decade’s worrying trend of collapsing the distinction between a person’s personal and professional identity is only exacerbated by corporate edicts about what you can and cannot say on social media. This goes double for journalists, who are constitutionally prone to outspokenness and strong opinion. You can imagine the trepidation with which reporters at the New York Times (and outside it) regarded the paper’s newer, stricter rules for social media, which were made public this morning. I’m here to say: They’re basically fine. Not perfect, sure. But fine.

The first key point of the policy, and really, the main idea, is this: “In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.” The simplest interpretation here is that the rules are a return to an outmoded “view from nowhere journalism,” the sort of philosophy that says there are at least two sides two every issue. This is an obviously fraught idea in 2017: Stances that were once mostly agreeable (“health care should be affordable for everyone” or “the government should do something to prevent mass shootings”) are now being disputed at the highest levels of government. Is it really time to make the Times more stuffily nonpartisan?

But read in full, the new guidelines seem less like an effort to cling to anemically “neutral” journalism and more like an attempt to take preemptive action against bad-faith arguments trying to discredit the paper. A few of the guidelines literally address how to argue with critics online — don’t mute or block them unless they are threatening or abusive. In other words, don’t make it look like you’re against considering other perspectives. Overall, “be thoughtful” in responding to critics.

This is, actually, useful. Online has become a place where even presenting facts is treated as evidence of deeply held opinion. Discourse on Twitter is increasingly conducted in bad faith, and the online footprint of journalists is regarded by both the ignorant and the disingenuous as evidence of bias. Throughout controversies like Gamergate, trolls have combed through the non- or semi-professional ties of journalists in order to uncover bizarre examples of journalistic corruption. Simply being Facebook friends with a source was interpreted as incriminating. An errant, sarcastic tweet can light a fire that draws resources and energy away from the actual work of the Times.

There are a few different ways to improve your fire safety. You can keep a lot of expensive firefighting equipment around in case one starts. Or you can just not store a bunch of leaky propane tanks right next to an open flame. In March of this year, the Times’ public editor chastised a political reporter for making a dog-wordplay joke after prominent alt-right members like Mike Cernovich were able to spin the tweet into a minor controversy. The Daily Beast correctly characterized the incident as an “alt-right blindspot.” This is a real cultural problem for the paper. But at the same time, if editors and writers can lessen the chance of social-media fuck-ups, they can lessen the chance of damaging controversies, either real or artificially constructed. This approach would probably work better at places like the Times, whose newsroom lacks, by design, explicit policy stances.

I can think of some legitimate objections to this line of thinking. The first and most obvious is that disingenuous trolls will be disingenuous about whatever you tweet, no matter how anemic and nonpartisan it is. The second is that Times reporters own their social-media presence, and their employer shouldn’t be allowed to regulate it. As for the latter, the simple truth is that reporters who work for the Times have strong social-media followings because of that professional tie; the Times may not own it outright, but the two are linked. As for the former, the only real solution is for a social-media policy that prevents journalists from tweeting entirely. Frankly, I’m not sure that wouldn’t be an improvement on even this newest edition of the Times’ rules.

In Defense of the Times’ New Social-Media Rules