Is the New York Times Social Media Policy Good for Journalism?

Journalists, especially those at the Times, must wield their power wisely.

The New York Times issued last week a new policy on the use of social media by its reporters. The reaction among high-profile journalists ranged from concerned to cynical.

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times made a good point when he said the more rules you have, the more time you spend enforcing them, thus giving leverage to those who dislike your reporting. The peerless Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post concurred, putting it this way: the policy handed a “powerful tool to bad faith adversaries who will weaponize guidelines to harass/silence reporters.”

Hamilton Nolan, of Splinter, and Nick Baumann, of the Huffington Post, took issue with the policy’s impact on reporters’ right to privacy. Nolan said the Times union should “fight these rules which mandate policing parts of journalists’ private lives.” Baumann said that the Times’s “social media rules, like many of its policies, start from the idea that it’s important to hide reporters’ true views from readers.”

Here’s what I’ll add.

Journalism must operate according to newsgathering guidelines, professional ethics and internal company policies. To operate without them is to invite discord and disorganization—or something far worse, like the damage or destruction of life, liberty or property.

We have a big stick. We must wield it wisely.

Because journalists need rules to function in accordance with our democratic values, we are vulnerable to those who would leverage those rules against us. This has been the case for as long as journalists tried reporting accurately, fairly, and without fear or favor. Attacks on journalists for not being “objective” long predate Twitter.

As for the right of privacy, I have to go with the Times management. If you choose to work for the Times, you must accept a unique life—one in which you are incredibly visible. Indeed, if you work for the Times, you desire that visibility. Because your life is incredibly visible, anything you say and do will reflect on the New York Times Company. The company, therefore, has a stake in its reporters’ social media habits. Bottom line is that when it comes to the Times brand, mum is best.

And that’s what this is about—the Times brand. If you read the policy closely (I don’t encourage this), you see the objective is protecting the newspaper’s reputation as a source of august, impartial reporting. Tightening the range of expression allowed on social media platforms is an understandable response to management’s perennial concern about the eroding influence of the Times brand.

Whether the policy achieves that end is another question. The better question is this: does the new policy serve journalism as much as it does the Times? The answer is absolutely definitely maybe.

Remember what’s good for the Times is not the same as what’s good for journalism. Those vectors may overlap or intertwine. But they are not the same. When the Times spent 2016 election making a fetish of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, that was good for the paper’s reputation as a source of august, impartial journalism, but it was a disaster of historical proportions for journalism and the nation writ large.

Baumann could be right. Journalism might be better served if journalists were allowed to say what they really think. But I don’t think the issue is that simple. Abandoning journalistic conventions to tell us what you really think can be as distorting to our understanding of public affairs as the journalistic conventions you abandoned.

Remember that a small cabal of elite reporters working for newspapers that do the most to shape public opinion did not believe Donald Trump could win, thus rationalizing the miscarriage of journalism that was coverage of Clinton’s email. Their views were obvious, and their millions of followers created “epistemic closure.”

If the new policy mitigates that, it will indeed be good for journalism.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.