The New York Times’ new policy on social media may rid the paper of perceived bias, but critics say it leaves unchecked the actual bias permeating “the Gray Lady’s” reliably liberal pages.
From ESPN to CNN, the mainstream media are grappling with how to cover a president who has incorporated criticizing the press into his morning Twitter routine. The ability to hit back on social media has proved too tempting for some journalists to resist.
William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School who runs the Legal Insurrection blog, said that is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of transparency, he said he would prefer reporters make their political leanings known in advance.
“I believe in transparency, and The New York Times’ new social media guidelines achieve the opposite,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The guidelines are designed to hide reporter biases that makes it harder for the public to judge the credibility of reporting. Particularly in an age where we are asked to accept anonymously sourced reporting on the Trump administration, the public should know more about the political biases of those asking us to trust them on sourcing.”
Executive Editor Dean Baquet sent a memo outlining the social media policy to the newsroom on Friday. “In the interest of transparency,” the guidelines were also published online.
The policy prohibits reporters from making social media posts that “express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’ journalistic reputation.”
Staff are discouraged from hitting “like” on posts that express a political view or from joining private Facebook groups that have a partisan orientation. When reporters make errors or inappropriate posts on social media, they should be deleted and promptly followed by a message acknowledging the deletion.
When sharing content from other sources, reporters should “aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints” because “consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.”
Tips from reporters with large social media followings were also included in the guidelines.
White House correspondent Maggie Haberman advised her colleagues to use caution before making posts that could be perceived as biased.
“Before you post, ask yourself: Is this something that needs to be said, is it something that needs to be said by you, and is it something that needs to be said by you right now?” Ms. Haberman said. “If you answer no to any of the three, it’s best not to rush ahead.”
The social media guidelines were issued just days after James O’Keefe, founder of the conservative investigative group Project Veritas, released undercover video of Nicholas Dudich, The Times’ audience strategy editor, bragging about his ability to slant the news.
In a statement on Tuesday, The Times said Mr. Dudich — who also falsely claimed that former FBI Director James B. Comey is his godfather — misrepresented his role with the paper and has no input on content determinations.
“Based on what we’ve seen in the Project Veritas video, it appears that a recent hire in a junior position violated our ethical standards and misrepresented his role,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said in the statement. “In his role at The Times, he was responsible for posting already published video on other platforms and was never involved in the creation or editing of Times videos. We are reviewing the situation now.”
Mr. O’Keefe said the new social media policy was a reaction to his video.
The policy also was issued the same week that ESPN suspended anchor Jemele Hill for two weeks for making politically charged comments on Twitter.
The “SC6” host was disciplined for appearing to call for a boycott against the Dallas Cowboys after the football team’s owner, Jerry Jones, said players who don’t stand for the national anthem will not play. Last month, ESPN also was forced to apologize when Ms. Hill called President Trump a “white supremacist.”
The social media policy created a stir among journalists from other publications when it was issued. Some saw it as a reasonable expectation — that reporters should not weigh in on political disputes that they are purporting to cover objectively.
But others saw the policy as a hindrance to telling the truth.
Carlos Maza, a correspondent at Vox, interpreted the policy as requiring reporters to “play dumb in the face of political malpractice.”
“If you forbid journalists from ‘taking sides’ in political disputes, you’re also forbidding them from telling the truth when they see it,” Mr. Maza said on Twitter.
Jessica Valenti, a columnist at The Guardian, said progressive views on women, race, immigration and climate change should not be treated a mere opinion. “What counts as partisan opinion?” Ms. Valenti asked on Twitter. “That women are people? That black lives matter?” “How do you not ‘take a side’ on climate change, bigotry, the dehumanization of undocumented immigrants?” she said in another tweet.
Jason Abbruzzese, a business reporter at Mashable, concurred. “This is a great question,” he said on Twitter. “Is an NYT climate reporter allowed to tweet ‘climate change is real’?”
Polls have consistently shown that journalists are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for, and contribute money to, Democrats. A study from Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver found that the number of journalists who identify as Republicans dropped from 18 percent to 7.1 percent from 2002 to 2013.
Of the country’s 100 largest newspapers, only two endorsed Mr. Trump for president. Four endorsed Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and 57 backed Democrat Hillary Clinton.
If newspapers are serious about media bias, Mr. Jacobson said, addressing the disparity between conservatives and liberals in the newsroom is a better place to start.
“If The Times truly wanted neutrality, it would employ an editorial and reporting staff with more diverse political leanings,” he said. “The problem is not public perception of New York Times bias; the problem is the bias.”