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AP updates social media guidelines to address retweets

The Associated Press released new guidelines today on how staffers should handle re-tweets. Here’s the text of the new section of their guidelines.

RETWEETING

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. For instance:

RT @jonescampaign smith’s policies would destroy our schools

RT @dailyeuropean at last, a euro plan that works bit.ly/xxxxx.

These kinds of unadorned retweets must be avoided.

However, we can judiciously retweet opinionated material if we make clear we’re simply reporting it, much as we would quote it in a story. Colons and quote marks help make the distinction:

RT Jones campaign now denouncing smith on education: @jonescampaign smith’s policies would destroy our schools

RT big European paper praises euro plan: @dailyeuropean “at last, a euro plan that works” bit.ly/xxxxx.

These cautions apply even if you say on your Twitter profile that retweets do not constitute endorsements.

The guide could be useful for other journalists who have struggled with whether and how to relay information and opinion from sources and witnesses shared on Twitter. While this policy has definitely gotten a lot of reaction on Twitter and elsewhere, I don’t read it as the AP issuing a blanket don’t RT opinions. It’s offering advice to avoid the appearance of bias, which (hopefully) all journalists can tell you is nearly as important as actually avoiding bias to begin with. (Or as the SPJ Code of Ethics puts it, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”) While I think there should be some leeway to RT without modification, it’s not ridiculous of the AP to draw a line in the sand.

But lots of folks online think it is ridiculous, or unnecessary policing and restricting for staffers. Poynter has a good wrap-up of reaction to the new guidelines.

One of the comments I found interesting was from one of the journalists I follow who I’d award the “most prolific retweeter” title by a landslide: Andy Carvin of NPR. He says

AP retweet guidelines also encourage “rt isn’t an endorsement” in your Twitter bio. Me: An homage to lawyers. Again, I’ll pass.

And follows that with this:

Anyone who follows you for a short period of time will figure out your tweet style. No need to assume they’re clueless. #AP #RT

Media critic David Carr of the New York Times summed up a lot of the reaction:

AP to staff: Don’t retweet anything with an opinion. bit.ly/rKbgDE Good luck with that.

It’s common for journalists to include a brief note in their Twitter bios (and other blogs/social media sites) along the lines “retweets don’t constitute endorsements,” but the reality is most tweets aren’t seen on their bio page. They’re in the context of a stream of information from hundreds of other people an individual is following. Followers make a mental shortcut of whether something is credible by checking who sent the message into their feed. Many people do read a RT as an endorsement of that statement, as much of the context (and origins) can get lost along the way of retweets and modifications.

Now, I agree the line in the bio is unnecessary (honestly, it should be implied), and that many people do realize the reporters are just passing on information because hey, that’s what journalists do. However, I also understand why the AP is concerned. For better or (in my opinion way) worse, journalists and the people they write about are operating in a hyper-scrutinized environment, where people read way too much into a lot of things. Yes it can seem unnecessary or wasted space before the RT, but adding 20 characters of news context before a RT isn’t nearly as restrictive as some social media policies. In a polarizing environment where many people are trying to discredit their competitors or discredit the mainstream media, it’s not a bad move to try and cut them off at the source and avoid giving some blog, pundit or person of opposing viewpoint an opening to question your objectivity just because they didn’t understand your tweeting style or intentions.

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