Political reporter Ed Henry has been reporting on Oval Office antics since before Twitter and Facebook existed for outlets such as CNN, C-SPAN, and Fox News Channel. But Henry, who is currently Fox’s chief White House correspondent, has since turned to social media as a portal for his viewers to get a back-roads glimpse at life on the trail. (Even his signature pocket squares have their own Twitter account.) Just before last night’s first presidential debate, Henry spoke with Fast Company about how social media has changed political reporting.
FAST COMPANY: What first attracted you to Twitter as a journalist?
ED HENRY: I was most attracted to the idea that you could interact with your viewers and readers in a way that previous generations of journalists couldn’t. That’s good and bad. There are plenty of days when you have people clobbering you because they read into something you said and they think it means you “like” the President or they think you’re too negative toward the President. But I think it opens us up in a more transparent way. As journalists, we’ve been pushing for more transparency in government and at all levels of the people we cover, and I think the public is now demanding similar transparency from us in terms of how we do our reporting.
Does Fox enforce strict guidelines for what you tweet?
They’re very open and free and say tweet as you wish. We have the kind of access we should be sharing with as many of our viewers and readers as we can. My first rule beyond any company policy is that anything I put out on Twitter has to be held to the same standard as any information I’d put on air. Social media has leveled the playing field to the point where I don’t think a lot of readers and viewers make the same distinction anymore between what you’re saying on the air and what you’re saying on Twitter. But you can’t wear two different hats and be fair and balanced on TV and then just slanted on Twitter.
What’s it like handling the sensitive or off-the-record information you get as a political journalist who is also very plugged into social media?
If you’re brought in on an off-the-record conversation or a piece of information that’s not quite ready to be put on Fox News Channel, you can’t just do a wink and a nod and go over to Twitter and say, “Hey, there’s this really interesting thing developing and I’m just going to put a little sentence out about it, so it doesn’t have to be held to a high standard.” It does. You see plenty of cases in which someone tweets something and 140 characters blows up in their face. As small as 140 characters is, you have to treat it with the same delicacy you would a report you’re putting on TV.
Do you think social media has blurred the relationship between politicians and the press?
I’ve only very rarely sent a tweet to a politician. I think it could look a little too buddy-buddy if you’re tweeting with people that you cover. One time I tweeted something about a college football game and Republican Senator John Cornyn (Texas) sent me a tweet because Texas was playing. And I made a comment about how Georgia was probably going to win and he said, you seem to be a big talker, you want to bet a cup of coffee on it? It was innocent and casual, and I think just like anything else we’re human beings. But we also cover serious business and you kind of want to keep it focused on that I think. Like anything else, it’s a balance.
How much do you integrate social media into how you work?
I don’t want to pretend that I only focus on social media to do my job, but it is a very important complement to what we do on a day-in and day-out basis. You can get a whole lot more information through social media than you can get just through the traditional methods of picking up the newspaper. Oftentimes people have serious views on both sides and want to be heard, and it’s a quick way for you to take peoples’ pulse on how a particular story about Mitt Romney or about the President is playing out there.
Any tools you like to use?
I downloaded a 360 photo app on my iPhone that’s kind of fun because you can be at a political rally and where you used to be able to just take these one-dimensional photos, but now can use your body to do an actual 360 and people can then see the entire event. One of the ways social media can be really effectively used by a journalist is to really bring people along for the ride. I love having a front-row seat on history, whether that’s a White House briefing room or the campaign trail. And as you can bring your viewers and readers along for the ride, so much the better because it provides transparency into what we do.
Do you see some of the newer outlets such as BuzzFeed as competition for Fox News Channel?
I think BuzzFeed has been around for a few years but has maybe made their presence on the campaign trail known for the first time this time around. They’re doing an interesting job of providing their readers with an inside look at what’s popping at any given moment, and I certainly follow some of the guys, Andrew [Kaczynski] and Zeke Miller, on Twitter because I find little nuggets from them, or see some things they might be linking to that seem interesting.
We recently crowdsourced tweets from readers about their personal rules of social media. What’s yours?
It’s more important to get the story correct than to get it first.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell; Ed Henry Image: Courtesy of Fox News Channel]