Journalists criticized the Associated Press last fall for telling its staffers that they shouldn’t retweet information that expresses a personal opinion. Now, the AP Stylebook is offering that same advice to other news organizations.
The new Stylebook, released Wednesday, has an expanded social media chapter that’s intended to be a How To handbook on using social media to build sources and gather news.
Most Stylebook entries define terms and offer usage examples, such as this entry for “app”:
app Short for application. A program that runs inside another service. Many cellphones allow applications to be downloaded to expand their functions. App is acceptable on first reference. Explain the term in the body of the story.
This is the primary function of the stylebook — to share how words are used. But at least one entry goes beyond that function to give advice on social media strategy, which is especially surprising since that strategy has been widely criticized.
The entry for “retweet”:
retweet The practice, on Twitter, of forwarding a message or link from someone else to your followers. Users can either formally retweet to make the forwarded message appear exactly as written by the original user or use the informal convention of “RT @username:” to share the tweet and edit or add comment. Spelled out in all references, though common usage on Twitter abbreviates to RT. If you amend the tweet before forwarding, use the abbreviation MT for “modified tweet.”
For AP staffers, retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like an expression of personal opinion on the issues of the day. However, AP staffers can judiciously retweet opinionated material by making clear it is being reported, much like a quote in a story. Colons and quote marks help make the distinction. Original tweet example: @jonescampaign: smith’s policies would destroy our schools. Example amended for AP retweet: Jones campaign now denouncing Smith on education: RT @jonescampaign: smith’s policies would destroy our schools
Savvy journalists who are aware of the criticism surrounding AP’s guidance on retweets might question why the Stylebook didn’t mention it. Journalists who aren’t as well-versed in social media, meanwhile, may read the guidance and follow it without knowledge of the criticism.
Carson Walker, editor for the West desk and interim video producer, considers the staff guidelines to be “best practices” and says they were included to give readers guidance on social media use — not to insist that the AP’s way of doing things is always the right way.
“We wanted to make sure that we conveyed what our standards are and that we put them out there for people to consider,” he said by phone. “I think news organizations are going to reject or accept a lot of them, and they should be free to do that. … We are by no means trying to tell other news organizations how to handle the issue.”
There are some parts of the chapter that would likely contradict other news organizations’ social media strategies, such as this line in the section on user-generated content (UGC): “It is essential to hold UGC to the same standards as all other information taken in and reported by the AP.”
Walker helped update the social media chapter with Social Media Editor Eric Carvin, Senior Producer Fergus Bell and News Editor Oskar Garcia. He had already created a 15-page document on social media use as part of an internal training session he led at the AP, and used a lot of the information from it when expanding the How To section of the chapter.
Much of the training, Walker said, focused on topics that AP staffers wanted to learn more about, such as how to do social media searches during breaking news.
“The AP is trying to maintain its credibility, and pass along some of the thinking behind what we do,” he said. “More news organizations would do well to have some really good guidelines.”
The social media guidelines AP expects its staff to follow
The Stylebook’s social media chapter includes a section called “Social media guidelines for AP employees,” which features entries on privacy, expressing opinions, retweeting and friending/following people on Facebook and Twitter. Here are some of those guidelines for AP staffers.
On expressing opinions:
AP staffers must be aware that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements. (See guidelines below on “liking” and following pages and groups that are associated with causes or movements.)
Sometimes AP staffers ask if they’re free to comment in social media on matters like sports and entertainment. The answer is yes, but there are some important things to keep in mind: First, trash-talking about anyone (including a team, company or celebrity) reflects badly on staffers and the AP. Assume your tweet will be seen by the target of your comment. The person or organization you’re deriding may be one that an AP colleague is trying to develop as a source. Second, if you or your department covers a subject — or you supervise people who do — you have a special obligation to be even-handed in your tweets. Whenever possible, link to AP copy, where we have the space to represent all points of view.
It is acceptable to extend and accept Facebook friend requests from sources if necessary for reporting purposes. However, friending and “liking” political candidates or causes may create a perception among people unfamiliar with the protocol of social networks that AP staffers are advocates. Therefore, staffers should avoid friending and liking unless they have a true reporting reason for it. If we do friend or “like,” we should avoid interacting with newsmakers on their public pages — for instance, commenting on their posts. If reporters need to friend a newsmaker who is using a personal profile on Facebook, they should limit the newsmaker’s access to their own personal information, using Facebook’s lists and privacy settings. To keep track of tweets by newsmakers, we recommend using a Twitter list, which allows you to receive postings without joining the person’s official list of followers. Again, the issue is possible perceptions by people who don’t fully understand Twitter that we are supporters of the person.
AP managers should not issue friend requests to subordinates. It’s fine if employees want to initiate the friend process with their bosses.
Employees should be mindful that any opinions or personal information they disclose about themselves or colleagues may be linked to the AP’s name. That’s true even if staffers restrict their pages to viewing only by friends.
A related memo from the AP’s Tom Kent last year warned staffers about expressing personal opinions on social networks. The memo drew some criticism and raised questions about what journalists should and shouldn’t say on social networks.
Other news organizations, including The Washington Post, also have guidelines that advise staffers not to tweet anything that reflects favoritism or political bias.
As my colleague Jeff Sonderman has pointed out, social media guidelines that place too many restrictions on journalists can result in “a lot of confusion and fear that a ‘mistweet’ could cost journalists their credibility or their jobs.”
To be fair, the Stylebook is a resource for AP staffers as well as for journalists at other news organizations. And the majority of the social media guidelines provide sound advice on topics such as searching, Twitter lists and digital security.
But I think the Stylebook should use a more neutral example for “retweet” rather than featuring its own criticized approach in that entry. And as the Stylebook updates its social media chapter moving forward, it would help to clarify — at the very beginning of the chapter — that the guidelines don’t necessarily reflect the “right” or even “preferred” way to handle social media; they reflect one of many ways.