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Breaking news

16 July 2020

By Henry Taylor, Executive

In June, an editorial controversy at the New York Times saw the dramatic resignation of the paper’s opinion editor. James Bennet resigned following an internal and public backlash after the paper published a controversial op-ed by a Republican senator at the peak of the unrest following the death of George Floyd. The controversy raised challenging questions about balance, free speech and editorial responsibility. At the time, my colleague and I wrote that the situation was a sign of the growing power of individual journalists to bring about a revolt in the newsroom.

Now, the next chapter of the saga at the paper has unfolded, with one of its most provocative writers resigning in protest at the paper’s management, editorial direction and treatment of staff. In a wide-ranging and illuminating open letter, Bari Weiss accused the paper of being rife with internal bullying, quasi-edited by Twitter echo chambers and unwilling to publish potentially challenging opinions.

The challenges of editing an opinion column to satisfy divided America cannot be underestimated, especially with polarising and deeply-rooted issues like racial inequality at the forefront of the news agenda. Nevertheless, the reputational crisis for the New York Times is becoming increasingly severe and risks undermining its status as one of America’s most respected news outlets.

There is some irony in the fact that Weiss’s resignation carries such weight because of her high-profile presence on Twitter, the very platform that she accuses of effectively editing the paper. Just as social media has amplified the voices of individual journalists and allowed them to reach new audiences, it has also created bubbles of discourse that are increasingly shielded from dissenting opinion, driving clicks towards sites that cater to these pockets of radical views on both ends of the political spectrum.

While the New York Times has long held a liberal slant within America’s media landscape, it has typically been a broad church of opinion. For such publications, navigating this increasingly fragmented online environment is perhaps the biggest editorial challenge in decades.

In a world where young journalists have grown up with – or indeed within – the Twittersphere, regulating internal differences of opinion is also a new challenge for the management of papers.  According to Weiss’s resignation letter, this was not managed well at the New York Times, with claims that she was labelled a Nazi and a racist, openly demeaned on internal Slack channels and publicly smeared online by other employees, while those responsible were never reprimanded. Some news outlets have begun trying to address the potential for these issues – closer to home, Sky News recently introduced guidelines regulating its journalists’ personal Twitter activity, while the BBC has started a review into the same issue for its own writers. Only yesterday, the BBC’s head of editorial standards and former On The Record editor, David Jordan, said Twitter had “become almost addictive” for some BBC journalists and that editorial standards were not always maintained.

As long-running and reputable publications from across the political spectrum begin to take steps to tackle these difficulties, they have an opportunity to turn the tide on the long running decline in the public’s trust of the media. If they fail to do so, there is no doubt that further reputational issues will follow, causing potentially significant damage to the quality of public discourse.