The Oregonian appears likely to join the long list of newsrooms with misguided social media policies.
Caitlin Johnson reports in AJR that the Oregonian is planning to restrict how its staff members can retweet:
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.”
I like the Oregonian and respect its long record of outstanding journalism. Peter Bhatia is a friend. When I worked at the American Press Institute, he was on the board, and we chatted frequently at board meetings. The Oregonian hosted the pilot seminar in 2005 of a series of ethics seminars I later presented in a dozen newsrooms around the country. We have chatted at other conferences and have conferred about career opportunities. I value his friendship and don’t criticize him lightly. But he’s mistaken about this.
I don’t think Peter has enough experience with Twitter to make good decisions about how his staff should use it. He does tweet, which is more than most news executives dictating social media policies. But he doesn’t use Twitter much.
Peter’s Twitter account is private, meaning you can see his tweets only if he allows you to follow him (I do). He has allowed 428 people to follow him (and a quick perusal showed many of them are people in the community). But a private account still limits your engagement with the community.
Peter isn’t easy to find if you click Twitter’s “who to follow” link. You can’t find him by typing his first and last names with a space between him, or by searching for “Oregonian editor.” He has no bio in his profile and lists his name the same as his username, “peterbhatia,” with no space. It’s a distinctive name, and he has a recognizable photo in his profile. But most engaged tweeps open their profiles and make themselves easier to find.
He has tweeted only 203 times. My survey of his recent tweets showed most of them to be retweets of Oregonian staff members’ tweets. He doesn’t engage much with the community on Twitter. I think if he engaged more, he would understand Twitter and retweeting better and see the folly in trying to inhibit his staff’s use of Twitter.
As Jeff Jarvis said on Twitter, retweets are quotes, not endorsements.
Oregonian staff members quote statements they don’t endorse all the time. They should also be free to retweet without inhibition. I’m not saying that a staff member’s retweet of a highly partisan or inflammatory tweet might not merit a discussion of whether the person should have added some comment, either in the retweet or in a subsequent tweet, to add some context and make clear that the staff member wasn’t endorsing the views.
But I think that newsrooms can guide staff members’ social media use more effectively with collegial conversations than with restrictive policies. I encourage you to reconsider the retweet issue before you finish that policy, Peter. If you want a good model for staff rules on social media, I suggest John Paton’s.
Update: Thanks to Peter for a quick response to my invitation to explain further:
It is a set of guidelines under construction … it calls for caution in making sure we aren’t seen as endorsing a particular point of view. There are limits on journalists; that’s as it always has been and should be. Our credibility is our most important possession. That can cause conflict from time to time with the wide-open world of social media. So we manage it as best we can.
Bhatia and his pending policy were ripped pretty quickly on Twitter:
I forgot to add that I have DM’d and emailed Peter, inviting him to respond. Also, I should add that I probably would not have written about this, except that I have blogged so often about newsroom social media policies.
Update: I added a couple tweets to the responses here, and may add a few more.
Update: I don’t agree with these tweets by David A. Johnson of the Odessa American. And I don’t have time to respond to them right now, but I want to add them:
If you're not providing commentary or opposing viewpoints, is a RT not to be taken as support? @KatySweeny @stevebuttry stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/ret…—
David A. Johnson (@OAinteractive) December 07, 2011
I think he means, “I’m saying it’s accurate.”
To be clear: I favor using good judgment in retweeting. Yes, if you know something is inaccurate, you point that out when you link to it. If you question its accuracy, you ask whether your tweeps can help you confirm or refute (as Carvin frequently does). If you think something is outrageous or offensive, note that when you retweet (or in a subsequent retweet if that would require shortening the original tweet too severely).
But sometimes I just retweet someone who disagrees with me because that person is criticizing me, and I give my tweeps credit for enough sense to figure out that I’m just acknowledging the criticism and sharing it with my tweeps. I retweet Gene Weingarten frequently, often about points of disagreement (argued about two-point conversions in football the past few days).
Will some people misinterpret my retweets? Perhaps. Some people look for things they can misinterpret to support their opinions and notions. They’re going to do that whether I hedge my retweets or not.
My point is that editors should trust journalists to know when a retweet needs some explanation and when it stands on its own. When editors disagree with how a staff member handles some retweets, they should discuss their concerns, encouraging strong Twitter engagement but noting why they didn’t like a particular decision. But I favor trusting judgment and having conversations about good judgment over guidelines that inhibit people’s use of Twitter.