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Twitter and journalism: It shouldn’t be that complicated

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The Associated Press caused a minor furor recently when the news-wire service updated its social-media policy and forbade its writers from expressing any opinions on Twitter, including implied opinions caused by retweeting 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. But 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 — without any kind of disclaimer or added comment — is that readers might assume that the retweet is an endorsement of whatever views are 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,” but apparently this isn’t enough for the wire service. The 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.

Why must reporters pretend to be automatons?

Many journalists and other media-industry observers on Twitter responded to this with scorn and derision, as detailed in a Storify roundup of some of the reactions. New York Times (s nyt) media writer David Carr, for example, simply said “Good luck with that,” while Andy Carvin of National Public Radio — one of the pioneers of using Twitter to report on breaking news events such as the Arab Spring revolutions — said that this 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 disclaimers in a user’s bio about retweets aren’t a good answer to this problem because few readers will likely check the bio page, and suggests that journalists could come up with their own shorthand for a “neutral tweet” to emphasize that they don’t agree with or endorse the comment being made. Since Twitter users have already come up with conventions such as MT (for “modified tweet”) and even the original RT for retweet — something that was developed by users themselves, and only later adopted by Twitter as a standard — he suggests that journalists using Twitter could make NT a new code for something that doesn’t imply agreement.

This may be an elegant solution, but to me, it’s solving the wrong problem — or rather, trying to solve a problem 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, (s twx)  lost her job after more than 20 years because of a tweet about the death of a suspected terrorist from Hamas Hezbollah. But all that reinforces is how media entities like CNN are missing the point about social media, or seeing only the potential negatives instead of the positives. As journalism professor Robert Hernandez noted on Twitter:

Restrictive social-media policies make things worse

As I’ve tried to describe before, social-media policies like the one from AP continue to try to maintain the fiction that journalists don’t have opinions — that they are automatons without feelings or intelligence, simply regurgitating the news without thinking about it. The ironic thing about these kinds of policies is that they actually exacerbate the problems that mainstream media are having in adapting to the social web and the new “democracy of distribution” (as Om calls it) that allows 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 that they do, mainstream media outlets are suggesting their viewers or readers are too stupid to figure out where the truth lies, or too thick to consider the facts of a story if the reporter happens to have retweeted someone or joined a Facebook page. Given that kind of treatment, many of those looking for news are likely to migrate to sources that admit they have views on events, 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 (s tri) 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 come up with social-media policies that actually encourage and take advantage of that kind of behavior, instead of trying to stamp out any trace of humanity. Journalists would be better off, and so would readers.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Yan Arief Purwanto

11 Responses to “Twitter and journalism: It shouldn’t be that complicated”

  1. Well, the policy to me, in the phrases quoted, reads as “Don’t express a personal opinion. However, you must comment.”

    That to me is inherently contradictory. Thus, it seems to me to be more a problem of mechanics, rather than an overly complex ideological problem … but it’s a problem nonetheless.

  2. Suzanne Adams

    I agree with Dedman. Journalists are allowed to have opinions. I’m a journalist, I have plenty of opinions. However, I feel that it does a disservice to my readers to voice my opinions in my stories. I try to stick to the plain facts so that readers can come up with their own opinions.
    I feel that sharing my opinion on an issue does not add anything to my stories. It doesn’t help the reader figure how to deal with the situation.
    Besides,sharing my opinion on a local matter in my area could lead to having a door to an important source slammed in my face and locked against any future stories.
    I can also mean that certain people who disagree with me may not read any of my stories which could leave them uninformed about what is going on in the community.
    That doesn’t mean I haven’t voiced my opinion on certain local and national issues. I just prefer to do that in a column on the editorial page where there is no doubt that it is my opinion and not a new story.

  3. Bill Dedman

    There has never been a rule against journalists having opinions. You’re arguing against a straw man. There is, however, an appropriate prohibition against journalists taking sides on matters of public dispute (politics and darn near anything else — everything is political). Military officers have opinions on politics, but it’s part of the job, to be a professional, not to take sides on politics. It’s part of the job of journalism, too — it’s not something that an organization is imposing on us. It’s part of an ethical approach to the work. We don’t take sides, we keep our opinions to ourselves, we don’t support candidates, we don’t sign petitions, we don’t advocate. Does that mean that we don’t have opinions? No. Though most journalists are pretty apolotical. But it does mean that we don’t bet on the horse, we don’t cover people we’re rooting for or against. We don’t cheer in the press box. What I’m not sure of is this: Did this writer not understand the difference between “not having opinions” and “not taking sides,” or did he understand but choose to argue against the straw man?

    • Kerry Northrup

      You’re spot on, Bill. There are real discussions to be had about whether journalists should adopt a different style when working in social media, like we write differently for print than we speak for broadcast, and how far to take such adaptation. But this piece isn’t really about Twitter or social media as much as it is about changing journalistic ethics. And that is a valid discussion as well – whether society expects something different from today’s journalists than it did from pre-Internet journalists. People should keep in mind, though, that the American journalistic ideal of not letting your personal opinions or your employer’s business motives affect what or how you report came about from a time when that was not the norm and society felt abused by it. Also, the clear impossibility of perfect objectivity doesn’t mean it is not a useful journalistic standard to strive toward. It’s like trying to always be a good person even when you know you won’t always succeed – I’d hate to lower the bar on that one just because of, say, reality television ;-)

  4. Tom Foremski

    Deja view? It seems this issue keeps coming up again and again. I guess there’s plenty of opinions around, if AP wants its journalists to keep their’s from littering the twittersphere then that’s up to them. I don’t think we’re missing much.