Thursday, 29 November 2012

Problems With a Reporter’s Facebook Posts, and a Possible Solution


Problems With a Reporter’s Facebook Posts, and a Possible Solution
By MARGARET SULLIVAN November 28, 2012
Start with a reporter who likes to be responsive to readers, is spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style, and not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting.Put that reporter in one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism – the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.
Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key.
The result is very likely to be problematic. And for that bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, who moved to Israel from New York earlier this year, and her editors at The Times, it has been.
In terms of social media, Ms. Rudoren has had a rocky start in her new position.
Within a few days of taking the post, she had sent some Twitter messages that brought criticism, and had people evaluating her politics before she had dug into the reporting work before her.
Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic, summarized them: “She shmoozed-up Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian activist who argues for Israel’s destruction; she also praised Peter Beinart’s upcoming book (‘The Crisis of Zionism’) as, ‘terrific: provocative, readable, full of reporting and reflection.’ She also linked without comment to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper.” The headline on Mr. Goldberg’s article was, “Twitterverse to New NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief: Stop Tweeting!”

More recently, during the Gaza conflict, she wrote one Facebook post in which she described Palestinians as “ho-hum” about the death of loved ones, wrote of their “limited lives” and, in another, said she shed her first tears in Gaza over a letter from an Israeli family. The comments came off as insensitive and the reaction was sharp, not only from media pundits, but also from dismayed readers.

Philip Weiss, the anti-Zionist Jewish-American journalist who writes about the Middle East for Mondoweiss, his Web site, wrote “she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience.”

Ms. Rudoren regrets some of the language she used, particularly the expression “ho-hum.”

“I should have talked about steadfastness or resiliency,” she told me by phone on Tuesday. “That was a ridiculous word to use.” In general, she said, “I just wasn’t careful enough.”

Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

There is, of course, a larger question here. Do Ms. Rudoren’s personal musings, as they have seeped out in unfiltered social media posts (and, notably, have been criticized from both the right and the left), make her an unwise choice for this crucially important job?

On this, we should primarily judge her reporting work as it has appeared in the paper and online. During the recent Gaza conflict, she broke news, wrote with sophistication and nuance about what was happening, and endured difficult conditions.

Mr. Kahn described her reporting over the past month as “exemplary.”

Having taken on one of journalism’s toughest challenges, Ms. Rudoren deserves every chance to continue to show readers that she is a reporter whose only interest is in telling the story engagingly and truthfully.

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