‘Journalism’s darkest hour’: a tweet in the wake of a tragedy

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The death of former Los Angeles Lakers player and NBA superstar, Kobe Bryant, brought about a media storm, with thousands of tweets and social media posts mourning the 41-year-old iconic athlete and celebrity. But in the midst of those same tweets came a few from Felicia Sonmez, the Washington Post’s national political reporter, that pointed out some other aspects of Bryant’s past. A few hours after his death, Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article that outlined allegations of a sexual assault case that Bryant was charged with. 

Choices on social media, more often than not, have repercussions. But Sonmez’s tweet saw consequences that the reporter most probably didn’t expect. Following her post, she received a number of death threats (by her estimate, 10,000) and hurls of abuse from angry Bryant fans. But she was also contacted by her employers. According to the New York Times, Martin Baron, the Washington Post’s executive editor, emailed Sonmez saying, ‘A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.’

The reporter was later suspended by the Post because of these tweets, which Tracy Grant, the newspaper’s managing editor, said ‘displayed poor judgment.’

But the organisation faced a backlash for their choice, too. The world of media, several consumers, and social media frequenters voiced their support for Sonmez and their disapproval of the harsh decision her executives made.

On January 27th, over 300 Washington Post journalists signed a letter from its union, in support of their colleague. They emphasised that it is ‘[their] responsibility as a organization to tell the public the whole truth as [they] know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.’ They included the vital underlying issue that Sonmez herself is a survivor of sexual assault, and that their company previously handled this badly. They condemned their employers for showing ‘utter disregard in supporting survivors of sexual violence’. The letter also acknowledges that Sonmez – ‘a valued colleague’ – was punished for merely pointing out a ‘statement of fact.’ 

Other major players in the world of media were outraged by the newspaper’s response to own of their own journalists. VICE Asia Editor-in-Chief Natashya Gutierrez tweeted, ‘For the record, as a journalist and a woman, I support @feliciasonmez and all those who have reminded us of Kobe’s imperfections. To silence her and others for raising a well-reported incident is unfair and ridiculous. #RIPKobe.’ Jon Allsop, writing for Guardian Opinion, quipped that the incident ‘was not journalism’s finest hour.’

On January 28, Grant released a statement saying ‘while we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.’ She ended the statement by expressing regret that she and the executives of the Washington Post spoke publicly ‘about a personnel matter.’ The newspaper lifted Sonmez’s suspension.

Despite this apology, Sonmez’s suspension sparked several debates. The question of what should be said in the wake of a tragic death is certainly in the limelight. But in terms of the Washington Post’s response to one of their reporter’s social media choices, there are more layered arguments to be considered. For one thing, are an employee’s tweets reflective of the institution they belong to? Should opinions so personal be punished? The issue remains contentious.

However, the outpour of support for Sonmez from fellow reporters reflected the fundamental values most people of the profession align themselves with. The majority acknowledged that while this is a time of mourning for Bryant, there is power in telling the whole truth of his story. She was silenced simply for articulating it.

Photo Credit: Alexandra Walt via Flickr

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