With the exception of a well-drafted libel suit, nothing fills the underwear of the modern newsroom editor with liquid panic faster than social media, especially Twitter. Having invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours to erecting sturdy news standards based on fairness and impartiality, they fear that one 140-character message by an editorial employee will ravage the entire edifice.
The panic-fluids ran hot over at NPR this week after a blogger on the network’s education team tweeted, “I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(” The blogger apologized, and to her credit did not place her tweet in the burn bag. Mark Memmott, the network’s Standards & Practices supervising editor, issued a memo to remind the staff of NPR’s social media policy, which he boiled down to this: “If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”
Personal comments on Twitter or Facebook “can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective,” Memmott wrote. Citing NPR’s Ethics Handbook, he asserted that “nothing on the Web is truly private,” and that even retweets were suspect — and to be avoided! — because they can be viewed as endorsements.
The Associated Press maintains a similarly restrictive social media policy, as the Poynter Institute’s Sam Kirkland reports, urging its staffers to avoid tweets or retweets that could be interpreted as expressing an opinion or approval. Nor does a disclaimer in one’s Twitter bio that retweets don’t equal endorsement provide any indemnity for an AP journalist. Similarly, Reuters warns in its editorial handbook of the threat social media poses to the company’s “hard-earned reputation for independence and freedom from bias.” Even clicking a “like” button can potentially compromise the company’s standards, it warns. “[B]efore you tweet or post, consider how what you’re doing will reflect on your professionalism and our collective reputation,” the handbook instructs.
Are NPR, the AP, and Reuters’s editorial reputations really so fragile that a 140-character tweet or retweet by a staffer can blow the whole thing down? I don’t think so. And neither does Philip B. Corbett, the New York Times associate managing editor for standards, who approaches the topic with comparative calm. Corbett holds that Twitter users understand that sometimes a retweet is just a retweet — that it “involves sharing or pointing something out, not necessarily advocating or endorsing,” as he explained it to Poynter’s Kirkland. Corbett still expects mindfulness from his staffers who use Twitter, but if I read him correctly, he just doesn’t think a thicket of rules and regulations serve the best interests of Times readers.