Off the clock? Not in this business

Reporters are under a microscope today — both on and off the job.

Nearly 25 years ago, after Timothy McVeigh ignited a Ryder truck full of explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds of others, students at the University of Oklahoma’s student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, went to work.

The team that I (Joy Mayer, one of the coauthors of this piece) helped lead did perhaps the best work of our young careers on that story, which was a local one for us. Our entire newsroom worked from morning until after the print deadline. We ended the day exhilarated and exhausted, feelings that would become familiar later in our careers but were new to us then. After deadline, we went to our favorite spot to eat and unwind. I remember so clearly what happened when our adviser showed up with the first copies of the next day’s paper: We let out a collective cheer.

Then a silence fell over the group as we realized two things: One, our emotions were really complicated, and the cheer didn’t quite capture them. And two, it’s almost certain that the people around us — people who were mourning lives lost and a changed world — would not understand our reaction.

Back then, it was only the people at the bar who might have misinterpreted our reaction. It wasn’t misplaced glee about a national tragedy. It was pride in a hard day’s work at trying to understand and explain that tragedy to the public, on whose behalf we all aspired to work. But today, journalists are vulnerable to a new kind of scrutiny. Now, someone could tweet a picture of these journalists at the bar, maybe looking less somber than they should.

Or the journalists might even tweet it themselves, as Washington Post reporter Rachael Bade did last week when she posted on Twitter a picture of herself and her Post colleagues at a bar with the words “Merry Impeachmas from the WaPo team!” The reporters were unwinding after a long slog of covering the House’s impeachment proceedings — a very different type of story from Oklahoma City, but one that also brings long, intense days and the need to decompress at the end of them. Bade later deleted the tweet (and explained why).

Disclosure: Susan Benkelman (another co-author of this piece) knows and has worked with Bade, and saw her then — and sees her now — as a conscientious reporter and a consummate professional.

Bade’s tweet would probably not have been as much of a problem if she hadn’t used the word “impeachmas” — a dissonant portmanteau connecting a cheerful holiday with a solemn vote that could lead to the removal of the president from office. “Merry Impeachmas” has become “a thing,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza explained in a piece exploring the origins of the phrase. Supporters of President Trump’s removal have adopted #merryimpeachmas as a celebratory hashtag. (Bade did not use the hashtag, only the word “impeachmas.”)

Even though she deleted the tweet, the castigation didn’t die down, and Trump supporters picked up the story and ran with it as part of an effort to show that members of “the media” are really happy about the impeachment and therefore biased.

Speaking to CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter after the episode, Post Editor Marty Baron said it was unfortunate that the tweet was distorted by people who portrayed it as reporters celebrating the impeachment. 

“The reporter who sent out that tweet, and I think was an ill-considered tweet, but what they were doing is that they were celebrating being able to go off the clock after a long day of covering impeachment,” he told Stelter.

But to us, the episode highlights two realities:

In the era of social media and personality journalism, it’s no longer just the editor who is speaking for news organizations — it’s everyone.

Reporters are never really “off the clock,” and even when they’re not at work, they are representing their news organizations and their profession. In a new American Press Institute report on how journalists can navigate today’s environment of misinformation and polarization, we talked about how journalists need to be more scrupulous than ever about being independent in any public setting.

As Bade noted in her clarifying tweet, the team was just glad to be getting a break after three months of covering the impeachment. But the episode is another reminder that journalists’ public behavior is under a microscope, particularly at a time when they are being cast as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” And it is important to note that most people don’t know journalists. In a survey last year by API and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 32 percent of respondents said they have personally been interviewed by a journalist, and 34 percent have known a journalist.

The new API report details a number of strategies for journalists who might find themselves being criticized or disparaged by public officials or others, including some tips from Trusting News about how to respond to allegations that they make things up or that they have a political bias.

Journalists’ motivations and integrity will be painted in the worst possible light.

The report also talks about how behavior in the field is important. We recount a story told by longtime Florida public radio editor, Teresa Frontado, who said that after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, two of her reporters witnessed journalists from other organizations high-fiving one another after they secured interviews with some of the surviving students.

This kind of behavior, Frontado said, is a sure way to feed the stereotype of the media as disconnected from everyday citizens and willing to abandon good judgment for a good story. Frontado said the station’s editors used the episode as part of a newsroom discussion about what the staff learned from Parkland and how to better cover traumatic events.

Journalists distance themselves emotionally from difficult stories out of self-preservation, to cover the worst of humanity with detachment and objectivity. But that ability to separate themselves from the events they’re covering also means they might express happiness about getting a good interview or joy that a hard story is ending or pride in a hard day’s work — even as a human tragedy or political turmoil is eating away at them inside.

But the public sees only what’s visible on the outside, which means one misplaced tweet or gesture in public can allow partisans to assign motives and emotions they can’t possibly know, but which serve their political agenda.

Through Trusting News work, we know that when people don’t understand how journalists operate, they don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. (Find a roundup of research on trust and public perceptions here.) Instead, they assume the worst about our integrity and our motivations: that we are out to make people look bad, that we enjoy tragedy, that we abandon humanity in service of a good story.

We can only operate effectively in today’s media landscape if we first understand those assumptions and then actively work to combat them.

 


 

Susan Benkelman is API’s director of accountability journalism. She is the author of a new report, supported by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, about how journalists can navigate today’s environment of misinformation and polarization. She can be contacted at susan.benkelman@pressinstitute.org.

Joy Mayer is the director of Trusting News, which trains journalists on how to demonstrate credibility and earn trust day to day. Subscribe to the Trust Tips newsletter to get a weekly tip for earning trust, and request a free call to talk about how to communicate effectively about the integrity of your own journalism.