The Naked Retweet Dilemma
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December 6, 2011


If journalists retweet information and links without providing any lead-in or context, does that suggest that they endorse it?

Originally published December 6, 2011.
By Caitlin Johnston

Twitter is causing new headaches for journalists. This time, it’s over the question of whether and how reporters should retweet information and links to their followers.

Those two little RT letters seem fairly innocuous. Twitter’s help center has a wide scope for guidelines on why to retweet:

“Like a Tweet? Retweet! Sometimes you come across a Tweet that you just have to share. Twitter’s Retweet (otherwise known as ‘RT’) feature helps you and others quickly share that Tweet with all of your followers.”

While journalists have been using the RT feature to spread information and links since Twitter’s launch, the AP released modified guidelines for social media use in November, including a specific section on retweeting. The reason? A fear of what AP’s standard’s editor, Tom Kent, calls a “naked” retweet; that is, an automatic retweet without any lead-in or context to the material provided.

The concern, Kent says, is that by simply retweeting the information the journalist could be suggesting that he or she endorses it. Ethics 101 teaches reporters to avoid bias, real or perceived. For Kent and the AP, the potential for a reader to view a retweet as a reporter’s personal view is a risk they’re not willing to take.

Some journalists are concerned that rules like this are too restrictive. “I think we all need to be experimenting with different kinds of tools, and the more you put something in a box, the less you can experiment,” says Dan Gillmor, founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

While it’s important to have discussions about social media developments like the one about naked retweeting, Gillmor says, in general he believes the fewer rules, the better.

“I’m not in favor of elaborate sets of rules for the use of social media,” Gillmor says. “It constrains the ability of the journalists to engage with their audiences.”

But editors and journalists are spread across the board on whether such rules are necessary. Often, the split stems from the question of whether a retweet is an endorsement or the simple act of forwarding something interesting.

Editors at Portland’s Oregonian are in the process of finalizing a set of guidelines for Twitter, which will include a specific section on retweeting. The new rules will urge reporters to assume any retweet is seen as an endorsement, not just passing something along, Editor Peter Bhatia says.

“Journalists in the mainstream have long understood that our chosen field requires special care in how we interact publically,” Bhatia says. “I don’t see this as any different than the limits most journalistic organizations ask of its journalists in the way they engage in partisan politics or political speech.”

Organizations with retweeting rules aren’t trying to ban retweeting, Kent says. Instead, the AP rules say reporters should write a lead-in to the material. Instead of simply retweeting a controversial quote from Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for example, the reporter should preface the retweet with “Gingrich shares view on taxes: RT @newtgingrich…”

“A naked retweet..can certainly suggest that the AP staffer was endorsing that opinion,” Kent says. “Not everyone would think that, but some people would.”

It’s that perception of bias that is important to guard against, says Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute.

It’s a simple enough idea, but some reporters are concerned it goes against the nature of Twitter.Backlash in the Twitterverse in the days following the announcement of the AP’s new policy included assertions that the wire service wanted all of its reporters to be robots and didn’t understand the nature of Twitter. Plus, it’s hard enough trying to fit everything someone wants to say in the 140-character limit as is. Now reporters have to hone these skills even further to add on an additional 20-40 characters.

But for the wire service, the policy makes sense. “These are guidelines for the AP staff,” Kent says. “These are not designed to control the entire Twittersphere. People can use Twitter how they wish, and we can use it how we wish.”

While there hasn’t been an avalanche of newsrooms hurrying to add retweeting rules to their social media guidelines, McBride says the AP’s move might come from the fact that the wire service has a special responsibility to protect its reputation and its integrity.

“That’s really important for sort of preserving the AP’s institutional relationship with its audience,” McBride says. “People expect the AP to be free from bias, perhaps even more so than they expect an individual news organization to be free from bias. And their clients expect it.”

While McBride thinks the added guidelines are a good idea, she says she wishes the AP had included something about the value of retweeting, such as its ability to acknowledge the thinking of others and connect to the community.

“There are all these really good things about retweeting, and I think that really good policies tell you the good things to do as well as the bad things that you shouldn’t do,” McBride says.

The AP could have gone even further in this section, McBride says, and addressed problems such as the potential retweeting of false information.

“The great thing about these policies is that, I actually think it’s good to add to them little by little as stuff comes up,” McBride says. “You could almost have a standing committee that meets every two weeks.”

The AP’s system isn’t that extreme, but Kent says the organization reviews its guidelines frequently. No particular event sparked the new section on retweeting; the revisions have been in the works for three or four months.

This sort of ongoing evaluation allows an organization to adapt to new developments as they arise. But Audrey Cooper, metro editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, says newsrooms would go nuts if they tried to account for every slight change in social media the minute it happens.

“Social media in general is changing so quickly that we’ve chosen the ‘everything you learned in journalism school still applies’ guidelines,” Cooper says. “It’s exhausting to try to keep changing with each new turn.”

The Chronicle developed its social media policy about two years ago, Cooper says. It includes everything from Twitter and Facebook to Foursquare and personal blogs. In general, she says, the paper’s guidelines are similar to those of the AP, but they don’t have a specific policy on retweeting. Editors just haven’t seen the need for it.

The Chronicle tells its reporters to be aware of perceptions, and that includes appropriate tone, voice and what they decide to link to, Cooper says. “I appreciate what the AP is trying to accomplish,” Cooper says. “But I don’t see a problem in our newsroom where we have to be so prescriptive.”

MSNBC.com also does not have a formal policy on retweets, but it does remind staffers that the lines between personal and professional communication have blurred. Retweets may be considered tacit endorsements and should be used for informational purposes only, says Josh Belzman, social and community editor, says.

“Journalists should certainly be aware of the pitfalls of tweeting without clear context or attribution, but we haven’t found it necessary to establish specific rules for retweets,” Belzman says. “The format itself and additional context provided in the tweet and at the profile level are usually enough to indicate the retweeter’s intent.”

Both Cooper and Belzman acknowledge that they see many journalists takes steps on their own, without a policy, to modify a tweet to better clarify its source and context.

MSNBC.com also encourages its reporters to tweak their profiles to include language such as, “Links and retweets are not endorsements.”

Justin Fenton, a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun and an avid Twitter user, includes the line in his own profile, but says that it’s essentially a useless tactic to cover himself.

“The people who are going to get upset about it aren’t going to look at that disclaimer,” Fenton says. “I still hear from people who say, ‘I can’t believe you said that the other day and are expressing your opinion.’ Those are people who aren’t familiar with Twitter.”

To be a good citizen on Twitter, reporters have to talk to people, and that includes retweeting, Fenton says. “You’re sort of judged on whether you have a conversation with people instead of running a one-way street,” Fenton says.

Though he advocates retweeting as a type of community engagement, Fenton says he rarely does it and finds that he limits himself in what and how he retweets. But it’s the absolute rule against unadorned retweets that bothers him.

“We’re sharing a bit of ourselves with our readers and having a dialogue,” Fenton says. “If we place restrictions on that, we’re losing the heart of the medium.”


Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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