What are a journalist’s responsibilities on Twitter?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a journalist. Sure, I write a column for an online magazine, and even get paid for it. But as a columnist, my job is a little different from that of a reporter. I have a distinct point of view—I promote research blogging—which is the kind of thing reporters try to avoid. That said, I also have been a critic of those who want to draw sharp lines between “journalists” and “bloggers,” and I’d add “columnists” to that list too, so I probably ought to resign myself to the fact that, for better or worse, I am a journalist.

But sometimes I take off my journalist hat and just chat with people. Sometimes I write completely non-journalistic blog posts about my travels. Sometimes I rant on Twitter (that one lost me a couple dozen followers).

And sometimes I express my amazement at an inane court ruling: “Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4″. This last statement, to my surprise, has given rise to a bit of controversy online. You can read about it here. Drugmonkey seems to feel that the statement is misleading because it could be read as meaning that the judge has halted all stem cell research (according to the article I linked, the ruling is unclear and may roll back all federally-funded research involving any human stem cells, or it may have a more limited impact).

While I agree that the statement could be misread (I suggested “Yikes! Judge halts a whole mess of stem cell research” as a revision), I do wonder if it’s reasonable to hold journalists’ tweets to the same standards we hold their edited articles and headlines to. A blog post or news article can be corrected, but a tweet quickly takes on a life of its own. It can be retweeted, and even if it’s deleted, it remains on people’s mobile devices and third-party Twitter apps. Maybe this means we should have *higher* standards for tweets.

On the other hand, few people see tweets as the definitive word on something. Unless they come directly from the source (e.g. Lady Gaga tweeting that she’s carousing in Vegas), we don’t take tweets as truth. More typically, tweets point to something else to gain authority — Like a New York Times article about a court decision.

I don’t think I’d enjoy using Twitter as much if all journalists and scientists were as careful in crafting their tweets as they are when they write formal publications. And I don’t think I’m alone. Twitter gets its power from its conversational nature. If everyone on Twitter had to be constantly on guard to avoid statements that might be misunderstood, then few people would think it was worth the bother.

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6 Responses to What are a journalist’s responsibilities on Twitter?

  1. rpg says:

    Yeah… I try to craft things on twitter when it’s anything that’s likely to be taken seriously, but most of the time it’s just chatter.

    I treat it a bit like pub. I certainly stand by things I say in meat-space pubs, but sometimes I hope it’s apparent I’m not serious. Of course, twittering from the work account (@f1000) is a different kettle of earwigs entirely.

  2. Ed Yong says:

    I think that the same rules apply as with any other medium – aim for accuracy as far as possible. On Twitter, I think there’s an understanding that 140 characters will sometimes make it difficult for nuance and qualifiers to be properly used. And when there’s a link, you’d expect to find the full story there, so that the tweet is a taster for this content. Personally, I think your original was fine. I can see where DM’s coming from, but it’s not straightforward enough to start calling you out for inaccuracy.

    I DO however think that journalists need to be very careful about checking WHAT they link too. It’s as much an important part of fact-checking as making sure that your writing is accurate. Have you seen all those “Top 100 Science Twitterer” lists that go around? Well look at this: http://blog.publish2.com/2010/01/05/nine-steps-to-verified-link-journalism/

  3. JR Minkel says:

    I don’t sweat the wordings of my Tweets too much. If I express myself badly, I clarify with a second (or third) Tweet.

  4. Maryn says:

    Since Francis Collins’ reaction to the ruling was to today suspend most of NIH’s stem cell grants, I think you were more on target than you anticipated.
    http://blogs.nature.com/nm/spoonful/2010/08/stunned_nih_director_puts_embr.html

  5. Dirk Hanson says:

    I always thought that tweets were meant to be more conversational, chatty, off-the-cuff, and informal–more like blog comments than blog posts. A tweet is not (I hope) the same thing as a headline on a post or a published article, although I do my best to make my tweets accurate, as do Dave Munger and DrugMonkey and most of the other people I follow in this sort of intellectualized digital version of CB radio we call Twitter…

  6. I caught the back and forth between you and the other blogger, and I came away thinking the accusation, and its associated long rant, was a bit over the top. I attributed this response to the accuser’s youthful idealism. I also couldn’t help but think about that other blogger, “Some day, and it may be soon, you will be hoist on your own petard.” I hope not, though.

    As to your point, “we don’t take tweets as truth” I agree with it in theory but not always in practice. Since there are studies that indicate frequency of exposure to some data (even if it’s false) may significantly influence thinking and perception (ingroup, outgroup—that sort of thing). In other words, it’s complicated.

    However, in general, like you, I allow myself to drop into a less formal, less fully explanatory style when I feel that my audience will understand the reference points. Maybe this is laziness but I like to think of it as a sort of friendliness. Or maybe we’re all just victims of fundamental attribution fallacy. :)

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