Complicating Twitter and Journalism

The Associated Press caused a minor furor recently, when the news-wire service updated its social-media policy and forbade its writers from expressing opinions on Twitter, including implied opinions in the process of retweeting posts by others. In the wake of that controversy, Jeff Sonderman at the Poynter Institute has suggested that journalists could use their own Twitter shorthand to prevent anyone from getting the wrong impression when a reporter retweets something.

As I’ve argued before, all we really have to do is admit that journalists of all kinds might have opinions, instead of trying to pretend that they don’t—or trying to force them not to.

According to the Associated Press policy (PDF link), the risk in simply retweeting comments made by others—with no disclaimer or qualifying comment—is that readers might assume that a retweet endorses whatever views have been expressed by the original poster. Many journalists on Twitter have tried to deal with this by adding a line to their Twitter bio that says “retweets are not endorsements.” Apparently this isn’t enough for the wire service.

The AP’s policy states: “Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying [and] these cautions apply even if you say on your Twitter profile that retweets do not constitute endorsements.”

Must Reporters Pretend to Be Robots?

Many journalists and other media-industry observers on Twitter responded to the AP’s edict with scorn and derision, as detailed in a Storify roundup of some reactions. New York Times media writer David Carr, for example, simply said: “Good luck with that.” National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin—a pioneer of using Twitter to report on breaking news events such as the Arab Spring revolutions—said the policy was “an homage to lawyers” and suggested that he had no intention of following such a rule. Someone else said the AP was now just “hiring robots.”

In his Poynter response, Sonderman notes that putting disclaimers about retweets in a user’s bio aren’t a good answer to this problem because few readers will likely check a bio page. He suggests that journalists come up with their own shorthand for a “neutral tweet” to emphasize that they don’t agree with or endorse a comment. Since Twitter users have already come up with such conventions as MT (for “modified tweet”) and even the original RT for retweet—something that was developed by users and only later adopted by Twitter as a standard—Sonderman suggests that journalists using Twitter make NT a new code for something that doesn’t imply agreement.

This may be an elegant solution. To me, it’s solving the wrong problem—or rather, trying to solve one that doesn’t really exist. Are there going to be tweets or retweets by journalists that could be misinterpreted or used to claim bias? Of course there are. Octavia Nasr, a senior editor and Middle East specialist at CNN, lost her job after more than 20 years because of a tweet about the death of a suspected terrorist from Hamas. All that this reinforces is how media entities such as CNN are missing the point about social media or seeing only potential negatives, instead of positives.

Social-Media Curbs Don’t Help

As I’ve tried to say before, social-media policies like the one from the AP continue to try to maintain the fiction that journalists don’t have opinions—that they are automatons without feelings or intelligence, regurgitating news without thinking about it. The ironic thing about such policies is that they exacerbate the problems mainstream media are encountering in adapting to the social Web and the new “democracy of distribution” (as Om calls it), which allow anyone to be a journalist, thanks to Twitter and blogs and smartphones with video cameras.

By pretending that their journalists don’t have opinions when everyone knows they do, mainstream media outlets are suggesting that their viewers or readers are too stupid to figure out where the truth lies—or too thick to consider the facts of a story whose reporter happens to have retweeted someone’s comment or joined a certain Facebook page. Given this kind of treatment, many looking for news are likely to migrate to sources that admit they have views, rather than continue to be talked down to by newspapers and TV networks that pretend they are above that sort of thing.

It’s important to note—as Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer did in a recent live discussion on the issue—that none of this precludes journalists from being fair or requires them to be biased at all times. The bottom line is that it would be nice if we could admit that journalists are human beings, and then come up with social-media policies that actually encourage and take advantage of it, instead of trying to stamp out any trace of humanity. Journalists would be better off. So would readers.

Also from GigaOM:

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