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: #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: #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:

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: #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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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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