The Ethics of Felicia Sonmez's v Washington Post.
We have experienced a prolonged moment of social reckoning over the past few years in the United States. Black Lives Matter has brought the names of countless victims of color to the forefront of a national conversation and MeToo opened a dialogue on sexual assault, particularly against women. Not only is the conversation shifting, but social media has changed how the conversation is had. The introduction of the internet has drastically shifted the dynamic between journalists and their audiences; Twitter has suddenly positioned the voices of journalists on the same field as everyday citizens.
The introduction of young people to the equation results in generational differences between them and their elder counterparts who are more likely to occupy senior positions in the newsroom. Consequently, journalism is changing and even the most decorated journalists struggle to impose outdated ethical guidelines on a fresh batch of journalists navigating a new media frontier. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez felt that her newsroom’s strict ethical framework surrounding impartiality was imposed unfairly on her as a woman. Her response was to sue her employer and her case reveals the Post’s questionable standards when determining who is granted reporting opportunities, particularly regarding MeToo stories.
Felicia Sonmez, a sexual assault victim herself, was always vocal about the sexual misconduct she has experienced and has advocated for other female victims, as well. While reporting in China for the Los Angeles Times, Sonmez spoke out against then-Beijing Bureau Chief Anthony Kaiman, which led to his immediate suspension and eventual resignation. Later, she joined the Washington Post where her conduct birthed friction with Marty Baron, the Boston Globe’s legendary former Editor in Chief who ultimately spent the rest of his career in the same position at the Post.
In her suit, Sonmez brought to light allegations against another renowned Washington Post editor, the Pulitzer prize-winning former-Japan and Korea Bureau Chief Simon Denyer. Sonmez alleges that although she was barred from reporting on Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, Denyer was allowed to pursue stories about sexual assault and MeToo. Felicia Sonmez was blocked by her editors from reporting on MeToo stories due to expressing a lack of impartiality — in other words, emotion — when covering stories like the credible allegations against Kavanaugh. Meanwhile, Denyer, who himself was implicated in allegations of sexual misconduct, did not have his reporting opportunities restricted, thus revealing a glaring double standard in the ethical judgment of the Washington Post’s leadership.
“I don't know that I agree at all with how the Post came down on Felicia,” said NPR reporter David Folkenflik, “but what I do think is that they didn't consult constructively with her. I think they offered edicts from on high. They thought they had the answers.”
By 2020, Sonmez had been blocked by the Washington Post from reporting on MeToo stories for two years. In January, during the aftermath of NBA star Kobe Bryant’s untimely demise, she tweeted a link to a four-year-old article detailing sexual assault allegations against Bryant which were settled out of court in 2003. Baron immediately reprimanded Sonmez for resurfacing the allegations by sending her an email reading, “Felicia. A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”
Folkenflik thinks “the adulation that Kobe Bryant received was hard to swallow in the absence of reckoning with this chapter of his life.” Sonmez later deleted her tweets citing allegations against the late NBA star due to receiving online threats, yet there remains an ethical dilemma pitting the agency and well-being of the journalist against the news organization’s reputation and credibility. Siraj Hashmi, who became an independent journalist after spending five years as a political commentator in Washington D.C., believes the Washington Post was insensitive to Sonmez’s lived experience and failed to provide her with the support journalists should be afforded by their employers.
“Probably, the Washington Post has that policy where it’s credibility of the paper over everything. The reporter doesn't have any agency, you know, the reporter is basically a tool, a mouthpiece for the paper,” said Hashmi. “When you completely remove the agency from the reporter, you then lose the capability of a reporter to be truly objective because, ultimately, if you are a mouthpiece for that corporate entity, you're now pushing the agenda or the narrative of that particular corporate entity.”
Journalists must be cautious of the ethical implications of their social media usage, but social media norms increasingly dictate the correct approaches for newsrooms when it comes to ethics. News organizations are historically structured from the top down, where the positions of senior editors grant them hierarchical control over important internal decisions. Those on top set the rules and ethical guidelines that reporters follow, but these are extending beyond just journalistic practices and are beginning to dictate how staff conduct themselves personally and on social media.
While the older generation of journalists believe reporters must be objective both within and outside of the newsroom, the rising generation values fairness and transparency in how their personal experience and identity inform their work. While transparency in journalistic practice has always been important, younger journalists feel that using social media as a platform to express their views candidly does not impede their work and allows for a greater level of authenticity rather than upholding an illusion of impartiality for the sake of their employer’s credibility.
“I don't think that news organizations should be able to dictate exactly everything that people can say or not say, but I think they need to treat them as professionals and set guidelines that are very clear,” said Folkenflik. “I think the worry is that the interpretation of ethics, you know, evolves with the times, and I think we're in an age where fairness has to be first. But the idea that reporters have no beliefs or thoughts isn't inherently going to be believed.”
Social media has complicated the tried-and-tested ethical framework held dear by veteran upper-staff like Marty Baron. Decades of occupying senior positions in some of the country’s most esteemed newsrooms made Baron complacent to his generation’s conceptions of ethics and impartiality. Baron and his colleagues became comfortable imposing an ethical standard that prioritizes the reputation and credibility of the newspaper, leading lower-level staff to feel alienated by policies that aren’t in their interest.
Younger journalists have lower inhibitions online and are more open to expressing their views, sharing their opinions, or putting their identities front and center. However, this is antithetical to old-school norms upheld by editors like Baron who are averse to public forms of expression because they may suggest partiality and pose a risk to the paper’s reputation. Folkenflik believes that Baron mishandled what was ultimately a generational culture clash where his ethical dictates failed to evolve.
“Marty Baron, probably the finest news editor of his generation, but his generation was one that wasn't comfortable with social media, his generation is one that didn't get it and it wasn't organic to them,” said Folkenflik. “I think the Post hadn't served its staff well with clarity about what's acceptable and what's not and, to the extent it didn't do that, it was clashing against the sensibility of a staff that was pretty fluent in social media discussions and didn't appreciate how the boss is trying to say, ‘you know, speech is not to be done except as we do it, even when it's done under your name.’”
Marty Baron has since left the Post and retired from professional journalism. Folkenflik points out that Baron and his peers in leadership positions enforced guidelines that shaped their staff in their scrupulous and professionally circumspect image, but “that's not how all journalists live their lives now.” While it used to be that journalists were an asset that gained credibility through the backing of an established organization, the internet has disrupted this model by allowing journalists to form connections directly with the audience and build a reputation independent of an institution. This disturbed Baron’s rigid ethical norms and he ultimately became an anecdote for what happens to newsroom leaders who fail in adapting journalistic policies to meet ever-shifting norms and standards.
The discourse around sexual misconduct and assault is an example of how shifting social mores are creating punctures in the ethical structure abided by newsrooms like the Washington Post. While coverage of high-profile sexual misconduct cases have their own ethical implications, the issue becomes more complicated when one acknowledges that newsrooms are not unlike other professions in that they host their fair share of sexual misconduct, as well. Furthermore, Sonmez’s case against the Washington Post shows how gender discrimination exists in newsrooms and that the way ethics policies are enforced may be unbalanced.
Marty Baron was not only in a position of power, but his role in exposing the child sexual assault scandal of the Catholic Church as the Editor in Chief of the Boston Globe publicly positioned him as an ally of sexual assault victims. On the other hand, Sonmez’s willingness to speak out on issues of sexual assault within newsrooms caused management to view her as an internal threat to the maintenance — or at least to the veneer — of the Washington Post’s impartiality both regarding MeToo coverage and in general. This is just scratching the surface of a deeper double standard between how younger female journalists are treated differently than experienced male journalists for doing quite similar things, just in different ways.
“I think that [Baron] felt Felicia couldn't do it on the basis of what she had tweeted publicly and that there were many people, including colleagues, and not just colleagues who are of her age, who said that was wrong,” Folkenflik opined. “The editors involved thought they were protecting the name and reputation of the Post. They have to figure out a way to operate in a world where people express versions of themselves.”
Furthermore, Baron is chief among the members of management who are to blame for imposing this double standard since Denyer was allowed to cover MeToo stories which Sonmez wasn’t despite him being involved in his own conflict of interests. Denyer was allowed to cover MeToo despite being implicated in allegations of sexual misconduct, while Sonmez was barred from covering the same stories because she was vocal about cases of sexual misconduct. She did not exhibit partisanship or even express an opinion, but rather only pointed to facts and transparently displayed her inclination toward justice for victims. The problem here was not with the ethical guidelines themselves, but rather a lack of clarity on those guidelines and how they should be applied, which created room for major inconsistencies.
While it is difficult to make a clear determination on the efficacy of vague newsrooms policies, the conclusion is that the journalistic values held by legacy journalists like Marty Baron are outdated and even inherently flawed. Conceptions of ethics and impartiality are shifting within newsrooms and there is a demand for updating policies to meet the needs of a new generation of journalists entering an evolving media landscape. Baron’s was the first of many newsroom casualties that will result from the ultimatum posed by an ascending cohort of journalists: either adapt newsroom policies to our needs or get pushed out. Younger newsroom staff are more emboldened and empowered and less afraid to light fires under their superiors to affect the change they want.
Folkenflik thinks “it's the intersection of MeToo” in addition to “social media, where [Sonmez] is speaking out not as a journalist but as a person who was in some way involved,” which has made journalism more than just articulating a set of existing conditions but forming an objective argument around them as well. “[Baron] may have a different view about the way in which people talk about their own experiences in a non-journalistically-edited bag of words.”
Although the nature of the relationship between these two factors is difficult to define, social media and social reckoning are inextricably intertwined. By virtue of having democratized access to both the consumption and sharing of information, we have crossed a threshold where maintaining the same ethical standards as in the past will require newsroom policies to be clearer and fairer, but to also be less restrictive on how reporters choose to utilize social media.
There is no right answer for what role social media should play in the reporter’s arsenal, but the advancement of journalism is contingent on newsrooms shaping policies that accommodate the conditions of the market and foster a conversation around forming clear guidelines for journalistic conduct on social media. The foundations of journalistic ethics will be in jeopardy if existing institutions don’t make a collaborative effort with younger journalists to inform their ethics policies while also acknowledging a new technological and social reality.
“The one thing that has changed journalism the most has been technological innovation, Hashmi observed. “You can make the argument that that is generational because you're going to meet generations beneath us, younger than us, who have never lived in a world pre-internet.”
The methods of newer journalists will continue to cause shock among newsroom managers. It is crucial that newsrooms’ ethics policies are dynamic, adaptable, and transparent. Newsroom policies should serve as guidelines for perusing truth rather than as a structure for upholding an obsolete definition of objectivity veiled by dated journalistic norms.
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