What’s the difference between a tweet and an opinion? And what’s the difference between an opinion and news? The Washington Post recently discovered, and determined, that the lines were too blurry to delineate:
As tweets on Twitter, they’re pretty innocuous.
“We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not,” read a recent one. “But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”
Then, from this week: “Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from ‘standing up too quickly.” How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.”
What makes these tweets significant is that they were written by Raju Narisetti, one of The Post’s top editors. As one of two managing editors, he’s responsible for The Post’s features content and oversees its website. But he also sits in on news meetings and occasionally gets involved in “hard” news.
Narisetti said today he now realizes that his tweets, although intended for a private audience of about 90 friends and associates, were unwise.
They were “personal” observations, he said. “But I also realize that… seeing that the managing editor of The Post is weighing in on this, it’s a clear perception problem.”
He has closed his Twitter account.
Herein lies one of the many problems facing traditional media outlets these days. Actually, it’s many problems, all wrapped into one. On the one hand, traditional media is grappling with declining readership and viewership as consumers find other outlets for their news gathering purposes (read: social media, online media, blogs, etc.). To compete, traditional media personnel and outlets are embracing social media in a can’t-beat-’em-join-’em kinda way. They are making their own news product more social in nature (allowing comments, RSS feeds, blogs, etc.); they are incorporating external social media into their newscasts and publications (“Follow us on Twitter,” e.g.); and the editorial staff themselves are joining Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere to be a part of the conversation at the ground level.
However, they’re entering a brave new world. You see, these new media are not held to the same standards as old media traditionally have been. There is no onus of proof and fact-checkery. There is no presupposition of neutrality. There is no fear of bias. This is what makes new media so enticing and so engaging. When the old guard brandishes its sword on the new battlefield, the results can be uncomfortable. A neutral, unbiased press has little desire to squander the considerable capital it has amassed over the years by maintaining a reputation for fairness and objectivity. But they’re competing against opinion traders, in large part.
They dip their toes in the social media water, like this editor did, and they quickly find that the water is too cold (or too hot). It’s a precarious position for media personnel to be in, and they will have difficulty striking the right balance between joining a movement as it passes them by, working within the confines of the standard to which we hold traditional media, and keeping things interesting enough for the rest of us to care.