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Washington Post’s top editor sends memo to staff after backlash over handling of reporter’s Kobe Bryant tweets

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The Washington Post’s top editor sent a memo to staffers addressing the newspaper’s social media policy on Thursday, days after the brief suspension of a reporter over tweets posted in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death drew widespread condemnation.

“We do not want social media activity to be a distraction, and we do not want it to give a false impression of the tenor of our coverage,” wrote Marty Baron, The Post’s executive editor, in a memo obtained by CNN Business. “It is not always easy to know where to draw the line.”

The Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez earlier this week after she faced fierce backlash online for tweeting a 2016 Daily Beast story that detailed a sexual assault allegation made against Bryant. In an email obtained by The New York Times, Baron told Sonmez her social media behavior was “hurting this institution.”

Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003, but the criminal charge was later dropped. Bryant stopped short of admitting guilt, but he did acknowledge that while he viewed the encounter as consensual, his accuser did not. The basketball star later settled a civil suit with his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money.

The Post said on Monday that Sonmez had been placed on administrative leave while it reviewed whether her tweets violated the newspaper’s policies — an action that was widely criticized by journalists, including the paper’s own media critic Erik Wemple.

But on Tuesday, Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Post, said in a short statement that Sonmez’s tweets did not violate the newspaper’s policies. A spokesperson for the news organization said Sonmez had been reinstated.

Following the announcement from Grant, Sonmez said in a statement that she believed The Post’s readers and employees “deserve to hear directly” from Baron on “the newspaper’s handling” of the matter.

In his three page memo, Baron notably did not apologize for the way the newspaper dealt with the incident. But he did say that the topic of social media use “deserves continued discussion.”

“We want your thoughts on proper practices as well as on what more we can do to ensure your safety, and we will get back to you on how your views will be heard,” Baron wrote. “The benefits of sound policies will accrue to all of us, and further conversations can help us figure out the proper course. I look forward to hearing more from you.”

Baron said The Post’s social media policies have two themes: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

Baron said that it was important to him that The Post “not only get the facts right but that we get the tone right, too.” He added that “on the most sensitive stories,” the newspaper wants coverage “to be defined by the reporters and editors who have direct responsibility for it.”

“We count on staffers to be attuned to how their social media activity will be perceived, bearing in mind that time, place and manner really matter,” he wrote.

Baron also said in his memo that The Post had “invested heavily in security” and that the department was “available to provide immediate assistance.” Sonmez had previously said that she had left her home and stayed in a hotel on Sunday night over safety concerns. A person familiar with the matter told CNN Business that she stayed in a hotel through Thursday morning, and said The Post had also provided her a security detail.

Sonmez declined to comment on Baron’s memo.

But a number of journalists took to Twitter to criticize it.

“He still owes [Sonmez] an apology,” tweeted Lainna Fader, director of audience at The New Yorker magazine.

“Weirdly enough, still not an apology or anything about the reporter they threw under the bus really publicly!” tweeted Kate Nocera, Washington, DC, bureau chief for BuzzFeed News.

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