Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

On Twitter and the Media

We really weren’t surprised when news broke that The Plain Dealer had taken Tony Grossi off the Browns beat.

When Grossi tweeted last week that Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner is “a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world” it was only a matter of time, really, before some kind of punishment had to be handed down.

Grossi crossed a line when he went from professional to personal; rather than attributing the Browns continuing struggles to Lerner being a bad or disinterested owner, he attacked Lerner directly, and you just can’t do that.

Thom Fladung, The Plain Dealer‘s managing editor, was on Cleveland radio Thursday morning and he very clearly explained the paper’s decision.

“That tweet, from a Browns beat reporter, we felt and I felt very strongly, was inappropriate and unprofessional,” Fladung said. “It’s not what a journalist covering a beat can express. What he tweeted was not an opinion, it was an insult. Tony was a very good beat writer, very successful, but there are lines. He crossed it.

“Don’t do something that affects your value as a journalist or the value of your newspaper or affects the perception of your value and the perception of that newspaper’s value.”

Fladung could not be more right about the decision.

It’s interesting, however, that Fladung didn’t say Grossi is off the beat permanently – just that he is off it now. With no games, practices or team activities to cover, it’s not as if this hurts the paper’s coverage of the most popular team in town.

One thing this clearly isn’t is a First Amendment issue, as some have tried to portray it. No one is saying that Grossi can’t say what he did; he just can’t say it as a representative of The PD and his employer has the right to discipline him for it. (People who cry First Amendment are usually tripped up by that little fact).

It’s not a surprise either that some of Grossi’s fellow media members have come to his defense, saying he just made a mistake or that his tweet wasn’t meant to be made publicSome have even gone as far as to try and blame the Browns for what happened or they want to blame it on the “new-fangled” technology of Twitter. Because who, really, could be expected to know how to operate a computer?

This raises a bigger point, though, as old school media members have struggled to understand and adapt to the rise of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook – with retweets becoming an issue that needs to be addressed – and it’s time for a much needed change.

In a guest post at Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, Michael Bradley, a writer, broadcaster and teacher, points out that reporters and editors need to treat Twitter the same way they treat newsprint:

Twitter is now every bit the conventional delivery system as a newspaper. If we are going to acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, and old ways are losing traction, we must begin to hold the newer methods to the same standards that we expected from their predecessors.

That means reports can’t be based on unnamed, vague “sources,” who could be anyone from the custodian at a school to the executive assistant at a professional team. It means that anything sent out to the masses, whether in 140 characters or 20 copy inches, must be checked, re-checked and subject to the same kind of rigor that one would find in a newspaper, TV report or even on-line site (most of the time).

Bradley was referring to the rush over the weekend to be first in reporting the death of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, but his message applies to the Grossi situation as well. It shouldn’t be excused just because it appeared in digital form on Twitter, rather than on the printed page of The Plain Dealer.

That’s why news organizations, such as The Associated Press and the Agence France-Press, have started to issue social media guidelines for their reporters and editors. This one in particular from The AP would have saved Grossi a lot of trouble:

Any response we make … could go public. E-mail and direct Facebook and Twitter messages may feel like private communications, but may easily find their way to blogs …

Portland’s Oregonian is an example of a newspaper that is working to adapt to the changing landscape, as the paper’s editors are finalizing a set of guidelines for Twitter.

“Journalists in the mainstream have long understood that our chosen field requires special care in how we interact publicly,” Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian, told the American Journalism Review website. “I don’t see this as any different than the limits most journalistic organizations ask of its journalists in the way they engage in partisan politics or political speech.”

Not everyone shares his opinion, however.

“I think we all need to be experimenting with different kinds of tools, and the more you put something in a box, the less you can experiment,” Dan Gillmor, founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in the same American Journalism Review article. “I’m not in favor of elaborate sets of rules for the use of social media. It constrains the ability of the journalists to engage with their audiences.”

Being able to engage with their audience is exactly why you need rules, however, because clearly not everyone can handle it in a responsible manner.

We’ve seen some comments that try to turn this into a Cleveland joke, as in “only in Cleveland does a reporter get in trouble for a tweet.”

But this is a serious issue that major news organizations are struggling with on a daily basis.

Maybe the biggest surprise in all this is that it hasn’t happened before.

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