On July 2nd, NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz landed in hot water for the following tweet:
I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(— NPR's Education Team (@npr_ed) July 2, 2014
Since then, Kamenetz has apologized, and yesterday, NPR's Mark Memmott issued a response memo to NPR staff. Here's an excerpt:
"If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.” That’s been the basic guidance for quite a few years. In reality, Twitter and other social media sites allow us to show more of our personalities than we might on the air or in a blog post. BUT, though the words may be on “personal” Twitter or Facebook accounts, what we say can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective. Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: “Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?”
So first, to be clear, Kamenetz's tweet was bad. It expressed a stupid thought that hurt her and her employer's credibility.
But surprisingly, I think this dumb tweet actually passes the test Memmott proposes: it probably helped her journalism more than it hurt it. Kamenetz had a stupid thought -- that her lack of deep relationships with non-white sources reflected on those sources, rather than on her journalism. She aired her thought in public. People corrected her. She changed her thinking. That's actually how social media is supposed to work for reporters. It's not just a place where you broadcast your stories to a grateful audience, never embarrassing your employer or yourself. It's a place where you can also think out loud and get feedback.
NPR has a diversity problem, and one of the many drawbacks of that is that reporters are less likely to have their own limited perspectives challenged. The only solution to that problem is more diverse newsrooms and more diverse shows. In the meantime though, I'm in favor of dumb assumptions being corrected in public, rather than quietly infecting NPR's reporting. Memmott's directive was "If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web." But because Kamenetz said a dumb thing on the web, she'll now say smarter things on the air.