June 7, 2010

Social Media Panel Members: Bert Bruser, Tim Currie (Chair), Kirk LaPointe and Ellen Van Wageningen

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the Social Media panel to propose guidelines for re-tweeting, or forwarding through social networks, information that originates from followers. The issue applies mainly to using Twitter in breaking news situations but it also applies to re-posting information in other social networks such as Facebook.

The primary issue is the risk of distributing untrue information. A related issue is the risk of seeming to endorse the opinions of others.

To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations and the opinions of leading commentators on the issue.


The power of social networks to amplify breaking news reports was illustrated in January 2009 when Florida entrepreneur Janis Krums tweeted a photo of a U.S. Airways plane in New York’s Hudson River. Krums had only 170 followers at the time but retweets resulted in thousands of peopleviewing the photo within minutes. The event underscored the swiftness of the medium and the potential for crowdsourced reporting from eyewitnesses first on the scene. It highlighted the growing importance of social networks in gathering information that can supplement — and improve — the work of reporters.

Five months later in June 2009, Iranians produced a flood of reports on Twitter, which offered news organizations real-time information about the protests in the country. Government suppression of independent reporting meant it was difficult to get information from other sources. The Project for Excellence in Journalism called it a “Twitter Revolution.” Some journalists used the stream of information to share the perspectives of Iranians and help their social media audience better understand the event. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge re-tweeted a list of Iranians on Twitter that was created by blogger Dave Winer. He argued he was sharing information without providing judgment on it; he was letting his audience decide how they would treat it. However, journalist and academic Julie Posetti argued Laforge’s action amounted to approving the list and endorsing its authenticity. She stated, “Professional journalists will be judged more harshly by society if they RT (retweet) content which later proves to be false — particularly in the context of a crisis.”

In November 2009, news organizations repeated Twitter mentions of multiple gunmen in a shooting incident at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. In fact, an army psychiatrist was the sole shooter. The Radio Television Digital News Association argues in its ethical guidelines that the news organizations used proper instincts in repeating the information — even though it was later proved to be false. If it was true, it could have saved lives. Still, the association’s guidelines state: “Journalists must source information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the information is fluid and could be unreliable.”

Perhaps the most well-known episode of re-tweeting involves Mathew Ingram, formerly the Globe and Mail’s communities editor.

In October 2008, Ingram tweeted that a citizen media update on CNN’s iReport was claiming that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The iReport piece led to a significant — but temporary — decline in the price of Apple’s stock. Ingram soon found out the report was untrue and issued a clarification but he was sharply criticized for his actions. In his blog he later called his initial decision a mistake, saying he should have waited to verify it. But nine months later, he told CBC Radio’s Ira Basen for his radio documentary “I might have posted it anyway.” He called the event “a sign of journalism as a process working,” suggesting that, instead of being absent in the real-time social flow of information, journalists should “rely on people to make their own judgments.”

CUNY School of Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis calls this perspective “journalism as beta” and argues that forwarding unconfirmed information is acceptable journalistic practice as long as journalists label the information as unconfirmed. He says web culture is “a call to collaborate” — and likens the demands on the audience to that of 24-hour cable news, “where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference between what is known now and what can be confirmed later.”

Journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen agrees, saying, “One of the beauties of social media is its fluidity. It would be impossible for all of the millions of people on Twitter to verify every tweet before passing it on. Twitter isn’t a news medium. I think there’s an expectation that Twitter is the start of a conversation to prompt people to find out more, not the be all and end all.”However, the practice of “re-tweet first, verify later” would seem at odds with established journalistic practice of verifying before publishing. The Associated Press‘s social media guidelines, as disclosed to Wired.com, state: “Don’t report things or break news that we haven’t published, no matter the format, and that includes retweeting unconfirmed information not fit for AP’s wires.” The implied argument is that a journalist or news organization’s reputation is built on a record of accurate “publishing” — in any form. Being a reliable source of information at all times is paramount. The risk of distributing untrue information threatens an organization’s reputation.

Journalist Robert Niles however, argues, that the effect of such a policy is that news organizations become absent in the social media conversation of breaking news events. He argues instead that: “smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting.” He states further “Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But … traditional newsroom silence on rumors don’t make them go away.”

In considering these views, ethicist Stephen Ward suggests that any guidelines balance the strengths of social media, including “its love of collaboration and transparency.” However, it must also adhere to a plurality of ethical principles as to “how well they honour or violate the principles of journalism as a whole.”

Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry argues against blanket prohibitions in social media policies, saying such phrasing reflects “old-media opaqueness and control, rather than new-media transparency.” He argues instead for social media policies that include “recognition of the fact that social media help us collaborate, continue and improve our stories.”


A growing number of media organizations are establishing guidelines for social media use. Most of these policies see social media as an important tool for newsgathering and audience engagement. At the same time they caution against publishing anything that brings the organization into disrepute. Many policies address using Twitter as a reporting tool. However, relatively few address the issue of journalists forwarding information through social media in an effort to build community and participate in real-time conversations of news events.

The following is a summary of the ones that do:

The L.A. Times policy is similar to AP’s. It applies traditional standards of publishing to Twitter use, stating: “Authentication is essential: Verify sourcing after collecting information online. When transmitting information online – as in re-Tweeting material from other sources – apply the same standards and level of caution you would in more formal publication.”

The BBC, however, encourages re-tweeting while cautioning users against appearing to endorse the content. It states (PDF): “It may not be enough to write on your BBC microblog’s biography page that “retweeting” does not signify endorsement, particularly if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy. Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the “tweet” you have selected, making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice and where you are quoting someone else’s.”

Reuters‘ policy states generally that material from social media sites “can help us enhance our reporting, and our reputation, and this trend should be embraced.” But it encourages people to be “wary of information or images posted by Twitter etc users” and advises: “Strict criteria should be applied in deciding whether to use it, and if we do so, we must be clear about what we know and don’t know about its provenance.” Reuters allows for “‘retweeting’ (re-publishing) someone else’s scoop,” but encourages a critical eye. It states: “It’s simple to share a link on Twitter, Facebook and other networks but as a Reuters journalist if you repeat something that turns out to be a hoax, or suggests you support a particular line of argument, then you risk undermining your own credibility and that of Reuters News.”

The Washington Post‘s social media policy states generally that “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything… that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times advises against issuing reports of breaking news on Twitter, stating: “While Twitter represents a growing audience for us online … we should generally post breaking news first on the site, then tweet the URL.”


The panel concludes that participation in real-time conversations can be an important newsgathering and audience-building tool for journalists and the organizations they represent. It represents a new and valuable resource that can enhance journalism.

However, forwarding information that is ultimately proven untrue comes with risks that include:

  • Harming people. Information could give away the location of a police tactical unit in a hostage situation or give a person contemplating a suicide a greater audience. It could also cause a panic if it mentioned that a bomb had been found in an office tower.
  • Moving financial markets: Information about a business or a business leader could lead to rapid rises or declines in stock prices.
  • Violating common decency: Information could cause undue emotional distress to people if it identifies victims (by name or social media username), especially if relatives have not been notified.

The panel stresses that people who work in the news media should always strive to produce the most accurate and credibly sourced work they can. In doing so, the best approach is always to verify information before forwarding it through social networks.

Traditional journalistic values remain unchanged as new technologies emerge. The challenge facing journalists is to apply these values to rapidly changing means of communication.

However, the panel acknowledges that gathering and sharing information within social media constitutes a process of journalism, not a finished product. Consequently, frequent updates and clarifications are crucial.

The panel acknowledges that criteria for forwarding information would be useful. However, it views forwarding information through social networks as a rapidly evolving and  amorphous practice that makes establishing criteria difficult. For example, journalists would normally apply different standards of verification depending on the context of the information being forwarded. A surprising tweet with strong news value might require corroboration, whereas a lighthearted observation in the form of opinion might require none.

The decision to forward unverified information should always weigh the value of getting information out to the audience quickly with the risk of causing harm. In particular, journalists should apply extreme caution and skepticism to surprising information tweeted by third parties — especially when it reflects negatively on a person or an organization.

If journalists choose to forward information through social networks that they cannot verify, the panel suggests they consider the following guidelines:

  • Journalists should, at all times, seek to verify the source of the information by applying the usual skepticism to the source of unverified information.
    For example:

    • Who is the source?
    • How is the source likely to know this? What is their ability to obtain the information first hand?
    • What does the source’s past history say about their credibility? Does the source have some record in their social media history of seriousness and reputable behaviour?
    • Where does the source get funding?
    • What are the source’s possible political allegiances?

Some useful resources are contained in Craig Kanalley’s How to verify a Tweet.

  • Journalists should issue updates, including corrections, on the status of their follow-up investigations promptly and frequently. (Eg. “The original report was untrue” or “We can’t confirm the report”)

Some good advice is available in Craig Silverman’s article on correcting tweets.

Journalists should take note of Twitter’s Verified Accounts feature, which authenticates a user’s identify, and use it as a tool for building trusted relationships with Twitter sources.


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