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Twitter mishaps and netiquette for journalists

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on KristineLowe.blogs.com.

Evidence suggests navigating the social web can be a bit of challenge for journalists, but does that mean we need a new set of ethical guidelines to manage their conduct?

Last week, while organising a debate on whether we need rules for journalists’ use of social media, I asked friends, colleagues and Twitter-followers for examples of journalists’ missteps and transgressions on the popular micro blogging site. My question threw up some interesting examples.

‘Digital doorstepping’

Firstly, I should point out that it would be wrong to single out Twitter: these examples are very similar to journalists’ ‘missteps and transgressions’ on other social media sites, such as blogs and social networks.

Only two years ago, for instance, we had a similar discussion after bloggers and others reacted sharply to the way some journalists solicited comments from bloggers who themselves experienced, or had friends who were caught up in, the Virginia Tech Massacre - leaving blog comments like “I would love to chat with you about this horrific event.”

“Journalism has a long and dishonourable tradition of doorstepping the victims of tragedies. But in the digital age, the communities around the victims have voices to express their outrage at the media’s behaviour – and that’s what we’re seeing here,” said Adam Tinworth in a blog post.

Bullying your sources

It looks rather embarrassing when journalistic bullying is conducted in a public place like Twitter, such as in this exchange between former National Post technology reporter David George-Cosh and marketing consultant April Dunsford earlier this year.

After Dunsford tweeted an observation after being interviewed by George-Cosh, leaving his name out of it, he identified himself when he answered back with some very aggressive tweets. You can read the whole exchange here. Ouch. There are of course situations where journalists feel bullying – of politicians, for example –  is entirely legitimate, even create TV-shows devoted to it, but was it appropriate here?

Twitter reveals journalists have opinions

An entirely different kind of example is that of Odd Myklebust, society editor for Norwegian regional newspaper Drammens Tidenede, who, two weeks before this year’s Norwegian parliamentary election, tweeted that this year’s regional political candidates were the worst ever. This created an outcry and spurred a debate on journalists and social media, and Myklebust later apologised saying the statement was too tabloid [disclaimer: I know Myklebust from my time as a columnist at Drammens Tidende].

This incident reminds me of the Washington Post’s new, much ridiculed social media policy which came about after one of its managing editors, Raju Narisetti posted a few tweets that revealed his views on issues such as health care, deficits and term limits. Impartiality is crucial to the WaPo policy, and Techchrunch has a ball with it in this post titled ‘Twitter unearths a secret: journalists have opinions’:

“When word leaked out that he had his own opinions and was sharing them on Twitter, apparently the WaPo top brass scrambled quickly to get this under control. That included Narisetti deleting his Twitter account. Pathetic.”

On the Norwegian incident, Per Valebrokk, editor-in-chief of business news site E24, wrote: “If Myklebust really means what he said on Twitter, why doesn’t he write it in his newspaper? What is really the biggest problem? That those working in the media have opinions, or that they’re not clear enough in their newspapers?”

Making offensive remarks, then deleting them

I remember reacting to the tone of several tweets by the Daily Telegraph’s former technology blogger, Milo Yiannopoulos, when I followed him on Twitter. One incident in particular was later brought to my attention by someone who followed the situation more closely.

“Back when he was @yiannopoulos rather than @nero, Milo Yiannopoulos tweeted that he hoped the police ‘beat the shit out of those wankers’, referring to the G20 protestors. Then he deleted the tweets when one was killed,” my source said. In the comments of the original version of this post, Yiannopoulos said he admitted his ‘stupidity’ in posting that tweet and had publicly apologised for it.

It’s a question of editorial judgement: if editors see one of their reporters or commentators make such ill-informed judgements repeatedly online, I imagine they would question how well this person is suited to represent the media company and at the very least have serious talk with the person in question. Also, we can all make gaffes, say things that are not well thought through, but most people recognise this – and apologising for it makes all the difference.

Personally, I don’t think a whole new set of rules is called for, but I organised a debate on this issue last week for The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) as it had been brought to my attention that rules are under way in Norway’s biggest media organisations.

Essential advice

Still, this debate reminds me of something I copied from my friend Adriana’s blog several years ago and have often used when explaining netiquette to various audiences:

“On the internet you are not an institution. If you want to be and behave like one, you get isolated and bypassed… It’s back to communication between human beings, communities and sometimes mobs. The rules of social interactions apply – if people challenge you on something you have done or said and you don’t respond, expect a commensurate impact on your reputation or credibility.

“If people make fun of you or try to embarrass you, the choice is to remain silent in hope of appearing dignified or to shoot back, with indignation or with humour. It depends. Different responses will be appropriate at different times and different circumstances. That is why etiquette is so complicated. Media and communications strategies don’t even come close. The main difference is that you don’t need to be ‘trained’ for online communication; it’s the one that you already know. And whether you are good at it or not has nothing to do with communication skills but with respect for others and some good manners.”

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