A reporter at The Washington Post who was temporarily suspended on Sunday for sharing an article about a sexual assault charge against Kobe Bryant hours after his sudden death was reinstated Tuesday.
Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter at The Post, was placed on paid administrative leave by the newspaper on Sunday after she faced an extensive backlash on Twitter for retweeting a Daily Beast article about an allegation of sexual assault leveled against Bryant in 2003. Within minutes of her tweet, Sonmez had received thousands of comments, some of which included death and rape threats, from fans who slammed the timing of her post.
Sonmez was cleared to return to work days after she received an immense showing of support from within The Post and the rest of the news media, including a statement in her defense made by the Washington Post Guild and a column by the Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, who called the suspension “misguided.” The Guild’s statement, which urged The Post to provide Sonmez with extra security in light of the death threats she received, and immediately reinstate her, had been signed by more than 300 of her colleagues as of Thursday evening.
After Felicia was unfairly suspended for sending a tweet that drew a strong reaction, I feel like any one of us reporters could be suspended at a moment's notice. I'm staying off Twitter until @washingtonpost gives us clarity, and brings Felicia back. https://t.co/9lfw19RAl3
— Amber Phillips (@byamberphillips) January 27, 2020
On Tuesday, Tracy Grant, The Post’s managing editor, said in a statement that the newspaper had determined that Sonmez’s tweets, while “ill-timed,” were not “in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.”
“Reporters on social media represent The Washington Post, and our policy states ‘we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of the Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence,’” Grant added. “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths.”
In her initial statement on Sunday, Grant said Sonmez’s tweets “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” but as the Guild noted, it remained unclear whether Sonmez was suspended for drawing attention to the sexual assault allegation or for posting a screenshot of her email inbox which displayed the names of individuals who had sent her disparaging emails.
Executive Editor Marty Baron also reflected on the incident in an internal email sent to the newsroom on Tuesday, in which he said it was “essential” that reporters “feel safe and supported,” but stopped short of addressing Sonmez’s suspension. On the issue of using restraint on social media, Baron said, “It is not always easy to know where to draw the line.”
The email was criticized by many reporters who said Baron should have apologized for not defending Sonmez in the face of online vitriol. After one Twitter user posted her home address online, Sonmez decided to check into a hotel for fear of her safety, she told the Erik Wemple Blog on Monday.
no apology or acknowledgement that a reporter was put through a lot of turmoil by an organization that did not appear to have her back.
— Lizzie O'Leary (@lizzieohreally) January 30, 2020
notably absent here: an apology https://t.co/7txT5gtFrV
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) January 30, 2020
This is a very long winded way of not apologizing or admitting wrong. https://t.co/8IkPk5AB8O
— Nathan McDermott (@natemcdermott) January 30, 2020
After she was reinstated, Sonmez called on Baron to clarify why she was suspended and explain an email he sent to her on Sunday in which he said that her tweets were “hurting this institution.”
“I hope Washington Post newsroom leaders will not only prioritize their employees’ safety in the face of threats of physical harm but also ensure that no journalist will be punished for speaking the truth,” Sonmez said.