The problem with retweets & how journalists can solve it

Every so often a journalist draws criticism for something he retweeted. And whether that criticism is justified or not, it discourages some journalists from using Twitter effectively.

News organizations respond with policies urging staff to be careful. The Washington Post’s guidelines tell reporters not to tweet anything that could be perceived as reflecting political bias or favoritism. The Associated Press just published new retweet guidelines warning that retweets can appear to express a reporter’s opinion.

The result is a lot of confusion and fear that a “mistweet” could cost journalists their credibility or their jobs. That is a shame, because Twitter is a vibrant network for real-time information, and journalists should participate fully in it. The retweet is the network’s method of spreading information, and journalists should understand how it works.

The disclaimer doesn’t work

Many journalists add blanket disclaimers to their Twitter bios, such as, “Retweets do not equal endorsements.” This is an inadequate solution. For one thing, readers don’t usually see your bio when they see your tweets. But the bigger problem is it fails to say what retweets do equal.

It also is sometimes demonstrably false. We do retweet some things — about our favorite sports team winning, or our new niece being born — that we fully endorse. Only sometimes do we want to dispassionately retweet something for informational purposes only, or for the sake of vetting it further.

Instead of relying on a blanket disclaimer, journalists should consider the various ways of retweeting and decide which is best for each situation.

The three different retweets

The first method to consider is “the native retweet.”

This is Twitter’s official method of passing along information, by simply recreating the original tweet, unaltered, to your followers. This has the journalistic advantage of keeping the name and avatar of the original poster attached to the words, while subtly noting that you were the retweeter.

This type of retweeting editorializes the least. It’s also an excellent way to echo a reply a reader sent to you that you want to share with your followers:

The second method is “the manual retweet,” typically expressed as:

RT @BarackObama: President Obama speaks about the American Jobs Act: wh.gov/live #WeCantWait

This has the advantage of letting you preface the original tweet with your own brief comment. This is a great way to ask a question, note your skepticism or add more information as you pass along the original tweet.

Fact-checking this RT @BarackObama: President Obama speaks about the American Jobs Act: wh.gov/live #WeCantWait

The manual retweet has some disadvantages, though. While it does attribute information to the source, it creates a new tweet in your name and could make you appear more closely associated with it than the native retweet would.

The manual retweet also eats up more of your scarce 140 characters by adding the “RT @username” to the front of the original tweet. In some cases you may not have enough room.

That is one of the problems “the modified retweet” can help solve.

The modified retweet is very similar to the manual retweet, except that you paraphrase and change the original language. Etiquette dictates you should edit for brevity or clarity, without changing the meaning or spirit of the original tweet. This type of retweet is prefaced with an “MT” instead of an “RT,” such as:

I will be fact-checking this live MT @BarackObama: Speaking now about the American Jobs Act: wh.gov/live

This method also gives you the flexibility to include whatever context, caution, or appropriate tone you want to maintain as a journalist.

A new idea: The neutral retweet

Are these three types of retweets sufficient for journalists? Do they allow a conscientious reporter to responsibly retweet information without implying opinion or omitting facts?

If not, the good news is we can invent something else. The entire concept of the retweet was invented by users who, in the early days, recognized the need to repeat tweets and adopted the “RT @…” convention.

With only 140 characters available, you can’t afford to waste 90 of them on an elaborate preface like, “I do not necessarily agree with this statement, but I thought it was notable enough to call to your attention.”

But perhaps journalists could convey that sentiment by creating a “neutral retweet” for the times when they want to repost something but don’t want people to read anything into their motives.

NT @BarackObama: President Obama speaks about the American Jobs Act: http://wh.gov/live #WeCantWait

As individual journalists decide whether to adopt this “neutral retweet” style, they’ll want to be deliberate and perhaps be explicit about when neutrality is required and when it is not. This is an opportunity to share with Twitter followers your beliefs about bias — political or otherwise — and journalism.

The important thing is for journalists to consider the options and plan the way forward, not to shrink from potential controversy and in the process withdraw from the audience you’re here to serve.

Related: A look at your reactions — does the “neutral retweet” address the bias issue, or solve the wrong problem?

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Discredit/confusion/repetition strategy flagged.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Continued attempt to discredit + no actual point = flag. That will be the strategy from this point on. I’m sure I’ll lose some posts that make points because that’s the way “moderators” do things, but it’s necessary to eliminate the confusion/discredit/repetition strategy that you and too many other journalists use when you can’t win on the merits of your argument.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    As I note elsewhere (on an old post that you might not see), I’m not going to engage with you any further. It’s because of this: http://bit.ly/ttYCw5

    I think you have some things to work out, and maybe comments sections and message boards aren’t the best places to do that. But it’s nothing to do with me. Good luck to you. I mean that. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Well, Dan, from where I sit, some people either still haven’t figured out the point of the guideline, or they are acting as if they haven’t, in order to avoid following it. As someone who encountered quite a bit of Strategy 2, I’d say it’s a coin flip.

    But if you want to make an actual point, go to it. The discredit/confusion/repetition strategy you’ve employed so far hasn’t done much for you. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Well, Dan, from where I sit, some people either still haven’t figured out the point of the guideline, or they are acting as if they haven’t, in order to avoid following it. As someone who encountered quite a bit of Strategy 2, I’d say it’s a coin flip.

    But if you want to make an actual point, go to it. The discredit/confusion/repetition strategy you’ve employed so far hasn’t done much for you. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Or the person could just follow the guideline and put the suggested punctuation with the retweet. That would prevent the need to reply or ignore. Interesting how that works. But some people (including many journalists) would rather work harder to avoid the guideline.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    “Everybody keeps bringing up the same point, over and over again. Dozens and dozens of people. Obviously, they’re all idiots and I’m the only clearheaded person weighing in on this.” 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    “Everybody keeps bringing up the same point, over and over again. Dozens and dozens of people. Obviously, they’re all idiots and I’m the only clearheaded person weighing in on this.” 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    I suppose you have a point. This: “If somebody thinks an RT is an endorsement, tell them it isn’t — or better yet, ignore them — and get back to work.”

    is just a twisted knot of obfuscation and “confusion.” Meritless.

  • Anonymous

    Back in March, Jeff Jarvis and Robert Niles both brought up similar wants for tweet conventions for breaking news.

    Say someone was an eyewitness at news event — as opposed to sitting at their desk — they’d append an ! to a hashtag. Frankly the ideas weren’t bad, and were praised in the comments of the posts.

    I don’t know if NT is the answer to anything. I do know that we all can do a better job of adding more information and context for our audience if we get a bit creative when it comes to corrections, eyewitness accounts and adding location to tweets. And so I’m open to any ideas…

    Jarvis: http://www.buzzmachine.com/2011/03/11/tweeters-i-want-a-witness-tag/

    Niles: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/robert/201103/1953/

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    I don’t think AP wants the staffers to write someone else’s opinion and make it look like their own. That was the point of the guideline.

    Interesting how people continue to dwell on the RT format in the guideline, but they keep missing the apparent point of the guideline itself. I’m starting to wonder if there is a common trait among people who go into journalism that sets up this scenario of missing the forest for the trees. It comes up a lot.

  • http://www.twitter.com/bartificial Bart

    The AP guidelines were garbage. They didn’t even acknowledge native retweets and told people to RT in a completely non-standard format. Some tweets only contain information. I was saying retweet when you actually want to copy/quote the text that’s there. If what’s there doesn’t work, don’t use retweets (just write your own content and credit the source of the link).

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Actually, Bart, if you read the AP guideline, I think your method would fail the test, at least with issues where opinions are involved. (Too many journalists don’t know the difference between opinions and facts, which presents another problem.)

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    There wouldn’t be a need for “stupid rules” if people would exercise sense in some of these things. AP, for example, made the major mistake of opening the door for opinions to enter news articles. Other outlets have done a poor to non-existent job of keeping opinions, especially baseless ones, from appearing in print.

    AP’s action is a small step toward reversing its major error. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The argument that we can’t debate this because it gets in the way of “real” arguments is not very substantive. AP and others have created guidelines. Sounds to me like there’s an issue here, but the people who pant heavily about the “benefits” of social media probably don’t see it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    As opposed to the people going through contortions to “explain” why there should be no guidelines. As I said before, many journalists rely on confusion when they can’t win on the merits of an argument.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Actually, the people who are overthinking it are the ones who keep insisting there shouldn’t be any guidelines, aka the standard lazy journalist’s cry.
    The idea is to reduce the amount of opinionated crap associated with allegedly thinking journalists. Perhaps this move wouldn’t have been necessary if more journalists had shown some ability to think logically and not just to buy into some pre-conceived notion.

    Also, if Twitter/tweeting is this complex to deal with, maybe it’s time to compare the benefits to the minuses. The minuses have been laid out here. I’ll add another — one of the local papers here has misused its Twitter scroll to the point where it’s almost useless. The few meaningful tweets are generally buried under the pointless stuff about video games or decorating doors.

    The pluses of Twitter? Let’s see — um … well, lazy journalists are now able to take tweets from public figures and athletes and make “articles” out of them. I guess that’s a plus, in some Bizarro world. 

  • http://www.twitter.com/bartificial Bart

    Hey you actually linked to the version of your post inside your password-protected WordPress Admin.

  • http://www.twitter.com/bartificial Bart

    I was 100% with this post, especially the part encouraging people to use native retweets, until you got into MT’s and NT’s.

    The point of a retweet is to send a copy of a tweet, either with or without your own commentary. If the original tweet isn’t retweetable, or it has a biased tone to it or just not the kind of information, just write your own tweet! It’s that simple. Write your own text, copy the link, and attribute the person you got it from with a credit at the end, e.g. to use your example above:

       Video of migratory patterns of starling birds by a young artist from Michigan: vimeo.com/31158841 (via @acarvin)

  • http://twitter.com/Communic8nHowe Communicate & Howe!

    Interesting. I recently wrote my own blog post on this subject called Don’t Retweet Like a Journalist because I had concerns about how journalists retweeted differently than I would advise anyone to do: http://communicateandhowe.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=883&action=edit But a couple journalists told me that they want to RT without adding a comment. The NT would be a good way to avoid any perceptions of bias.

  • Tyler Angelo

    I think if this is a big issue to one’s conscience, then simply don’t retweet something. Would you rather your followers view the retweet or would you rather be concerned all the time that your retweet may be construed as bias? Personally, I retweet all the time and I never am worried about what I’m sending out to my followers. 

  • http://twitter.com/AustinWulf Austin Wulf

    Look for bias in reporting, not in a reporter’s Twitter feed. Journalists should be allowed to be as biased as they want — everyone is biased about something — but when it clearly affects their reporting, their articles, that’s when you lay the hammer down. Don’t create rules for how to use a website that isn’t yours.

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    While I tweeted about it, the proper thing to do is also leave a comment, so here goes: NT? No thanks.

    I know Jeff is trying to come up with a ‘solution,’ but the truth is… there is no issue here. RT/Twitter/Social Media is working fine… at least for large community that engages in it.

    Journalists need to adapt to social media and embrace the larger community’s language, not create its own. For me, NT misses the point.

    I think NT (or the fear of social media) comes from the lack of control traditional journalists felt they once had.

    Instead of NT, how about framing that tweet with some context… yes, you can do that on Twitter. Try communicating and genuinely engaging with the community, rather than the traditional dictating to and ignoring.

    Also, we have some real journalism challenges ahead of us… let’s not waste time on fake debates: NT, is a blogger a journalist, can we trust citizen journalists, blah, blah, blah.

    Okay, rant over. Back to work!

  • http://www.lostremote.com CoryBe

    Totally agree with others that journalists are overthinking this, as always. A retweet (manual or native), is just simply passing along something you saw.  As journalists, we pass along different voices, different opinions.  Is adding a quote in a story an implicit endorsement?  A sound bite? 

    Like we do at BreakingNews, think of a stream as a story. You can pass along a variety of opinions as long as they tend to balance out in aggregate.

    Cory Bergman
    Director, BreakingNews ( @breakingnews:twitter , BreakingNews.com, etc.)
    @corybe:twitter

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    Watching people go through these contortions to deal with this nonproblem is like watching a plane crash in slow motion. If somebody thinks an RT is an endorsement, tell them it isn’t — or better yet, ignore them — and get back to work.

  • http://www.sevendaysvt.com/ Tyler Machado

    Oh for God’s sake… there is no problem with retweets except in the minds of journalists who are overthinking it.

    I retweet opinionated tweets from my paper’s account — yes, my paper’s account, not my personal one — and no one has ever accused us of bias, favoritism, or anything else except being a good Twitter citizen. People who use Twitter understand the Twitter ecosystem. Lawyers and corporate managers who don’t use Twitter and make stupid rules do not.

  • http://www.sevendaysvt.com/ Tyler Machado

    Oh for God’s sake… there is no problem with retweets except in the minds of journalists who are overthinking it.

    I retweet opinionated tweets from my paper’s account — yes, my paper’s account, not my personal one — and no one has ever accused us of bias, favoritism, or anything else except being a good Twitter citizen. People who use Twitter understand the Twitter ecosystem. Lawyers and corporate managers who don’t use Twitter and make stupid rules do not.

  • http://www.donaldlafferty.com/about Don Lafferty

    While convention at tweet-speed can be useful to the editors of traditional journalists, more interesting and perhaps contextually effective would be a journalist-specific lexicon of retweet prefixes. That is, a page on the journalist’s site outlining their personal prefixes to further define their journalistic brand.

    For example, YR = Yeah, right; DS = Damn Straight!; BS = (Do I need to explain this one?), etc…

    Come on, we all have the time for this, right?

  • http://www.donaldlafferty.com/about Don Lafferty

    While convention at tweet-speed can be useful to the editors of traditional journalists, more interesting and perhaps contextually effective would be a journalist-specific lexicon of retweet prefixes. That is, a page on the journalist’s site outlining their personal prefixes to further define their journalistic brand.

    For example, YR = Yeah, right; DS = Damn Straight!; BS = (Do I need to explain this one?), etc…

    Come on, we all have the time for this, right?

  • http://www.traviswalters.net/ Travis Walters

    Replacing the R with an N doesn’t put up some magical ward that prevents me from reading into motives. This discussion shouldn’t be centered on how we retweet. Instead, we should focus on why people need to know a person’s ideological background before listening to what they have to say. We can come up with new systems all we want. The fact that many of the people on the Internet don’t challenge their beliefs and seek only information that validates their opinions is going to continue to be a problem.