During the past year, the AP has made three rounds of sweeping changes to its social media policy that impact AP staff. Ebyline recently had a chance to talk with the AP’s social media editor, Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin), about these shifts, the issues they raise about journalists’ roles in propagating brands (their own as well as that of their employer), and what all of us can learn from these new policies about using social media.
Can you sum up the changes the AP has made to its internal social media policy within the last year, and what led to these changes? Also, how do these changes better protect the integrity of the AP’s brand when its staff use social media?
The primary changes over the past year have been the introduction of guidelines on retweeting and some new guidance on correcting erroneous tweets. The bottom line on retweeting is that AP staff shouldn’t retweet strong opinions on issues without finding a way to put those opinions in context. As for corrections, we kept things pretty simple, explaining that an AP staffer who’s relayed incorrect information should follow up as quickly as possible with a tweet or post that explains that we made a mistake.
Both of these guidelines are key to protecting AP’s integrity. Under our Statement of Values and Principles, AP staff are instructed to avoid expressing opinions on issues, and the retweet guidance prevents the appearance of that sort of opinion being expressed. And getting the facts right is central to AP’s core journalistic mission, so correcting errors quickly and transparently is critical.
Part of the new social media policy states that “Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.” Some have criticized this to mean that AP staff should not retweet anything with an opinion. What has been the AP’s response to this?
Yes, we advise against unadorned retweets when the original tweet expresses an opinion on an issue. But that doesn’t mean people can’t retweet — they just need to do it carefully and smartly. They can put a few words before the RT to make it clear that someone else’s opinion is being quoted — even something as simple as “One senator’s opinion” would work. Or they can simply lift a quote from a tweet and put it in a new tweet of their own.
This is important because a retweet of an opinion can be seen as an endorsement of that opinion, even if you have language in your Twitter bio saying otherwise. For one thing, people who see your tweets probably will never even look at your bio. Also, I don’t buy the argument that it’s just an understood rule of Twitter that tweets aren’t endorsements — Twitter is no longer a small community of people who understand the rules of the game and abide by them. These days, people who know very little (or even nothing) about how Twitter works are coming across tweets in their daily lives, and it’s important, for AP’s integrity, for us to avoid any appearance of bias to the readers of tweets.
Yes, it’s a little harder to put a tweet in context than to just hit the “retweet” button. But we’re journalists — writing clearly and concisely is something we’re good at, and the extra work is worth it to avoid the appearance of possible bias.
How does the AP’s social media policy allow journalists to build their own personal brand when they are limited to how they can use Twitter while working for or with the AP?
Honestly, they aren’t all that limited. True, we advise against expressions of opinion on political issues, but that’s nothing new and has nothing to do with social media — it’s always been important for journalists to project an impartial image in public. (And not just at AP — this is common in the news industry.) Also, there are some exceptions to this. If people want to cheer on their favorite baseball team on Twitter — and they don’t cover that sport as part of their jobs — that’s fine. They can say they liked a movie or enjoyed a concert or really were blown away by a sandwich.
In fact, we encourage AP journalists to share the color and observations they take in — on assignment or otherwise — when they’re tweeting or posting to social networks. When this relates to an interesting story, we even point followers of AP’s accounts to them. We love it when AP journalists establish themselves on social networks as human beings with expertise, interests and something intelligent to say. And because AP journalists are just about everywhere, covering just about everything, they’re often in a position to share fascinating observations that the rest of us would never know about without their reporting, their images and their tweets.
Many organizations advise their staff to include a disclaimer in their profile that tweets from a personal account do not represent those of their employer. Why has the AP not chosen to adopt this strategy? Do you think it’s an effective strategy for these other organizations to use?
We haven’t advised AP staffers to do this. As I mentioned before, people who see your tweets usually will never see your Twitter bio, so any disclaimer becomes pointless. And even if they do see it, opinions expressed on Twitter by an AP journalist won’t be forgotten when AP covers something related to that topic — we’ll hear about it from people with strong opinions who will see those earlier tweets as a sign of bias on our part. And they’ll have a point.
Most of this, of course, particularly applies to news organizations. If someone who works for a company that makes drywall or does your taxes tweets about their opinions on the war in Afghanistan, it may not matter much — individual companies need to decide what makes sense for them.
Finally, what other challenges has the AP faced with emerging forms of new media, and how has it adapted?
The ability to adapt to new media has been at AP’s core since the invention of the radio, if not earlier. I like to point out that AP’s been a leader in electronic newsgathering and distribution since 1846, and we’ve shown considerable flexibility in changing times. In the digital era, one of the greatest challenges is that AP is fundamentally a business-to-business operation, yet we need to find ways to connect to individual readers, viewers and listeners of our content to remain relevant and competitive. We’ve made some great strides, including the newly reimagined AP Mobile app and our considerable social media presence — we recently crossed a million followers on Twitter, and when big news happens, we frequently lead the entire news universe in retweets on the breaking tweet.
Mobile and social are now at the heart of the AP newsgathering process, and they look to stay there for a long time — at least until it’s time to adapt to the next big thing.