An editor asked my advice on how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.
The editor was planning an appropriate response, reminding the staff and the individuals involved that they should always behave professionally.
But he was wondering if his approach might conflict with John Paton’s rules for employee use of social media, which some misinterpret to mean that anything goes. John’s point is not that we shouldn’t rebuke staff members for unprofessional behavior on Twitter, just that we don’t need a special Twitter rule for that. We already have expectations for professional conduct by our staff members, sometimes spelled out in employee handbooks and sometimes so obvious they shouldn’t need to be spelled out.
In this particular case, if the staff members in question had made the same comments as the guest speaker at a Kiwanis meeting or local high school booster club meeting, the editor would have heard the same complaints from people that he heard about their tweets. And the employee would have known, when called out by the editor, that the behavior was unprofessional.
Twitter is not just like print. You can use “ur” instead of “you are,” you can show your sense of humor in a way that wouldn’t work in a news story, and you can tweet about some personal interests that we would never waste ink on. But Twitter is not a private conversation in a bar either. If your profile is public (as it should be), the public “hears” your Twitter conversation, just as it would hear that address to the booster club.
While I have argued that retweets don’t constitute endorsements, retweets do become your tweets. A journalist retweeting a tweet with an offensive epithet drops that original tweet into the Twitter stream of his or her followers. If you’re not adding some context, people will remember that as your tweet. just as they would remember an offensive quote in your booster-club speech as your words, especially if you didn’t provide some context that justified the use of an offensive quote.
A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.