Sunday, October 18, 2015

Disclaimer: Retweets are endorsements

Jordan Horrobin

Have you ever seen that one, non-committal line in some professionals’ Twitter biographies that read: “Retweets are not endorsements”?

This is typically a journalist’s attempt — a feeble one, at that — to separate themselves from the opinions of others because those opinions may be offensive or not necessarily reflective of the views of that journalist’s company.

The problem is, with the way Twitter works, I believe retweets are endorsements. Otherwise why would you give the OK to have that information published on your account in its original form?

A quick disclaimer in your bio doesn’t carry the type of power to negate a tweet you’ve deliberately sent out through your own account. That information is tied to you and the public’s opinion of you because you decided to promote it by tapping the “retweet” button.

In a blog about “Journalistic Objectivity in the Digital Age”, Meg Heckman said, “There’s no such thing as an objective reporter”. She argues that since journalists are human beings with friends, family and personal interests, they are swayed toward certain ideas/beliefs at least in some way just like anyone else would be.

I agree with Heckman’s point. And you could suggest that journalists who are open about their personal interests/opinions — to an extent — can score major credibility points with readers. But that line is crossed, for example, when journalists publicly support certain political parties or candidates (this is especially bad if he or she is a political journalist).

Major media is somewhat divided on whether or not retweets are endorsements, according to an article from Poynter. NPR’s ethics handbook states: “Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ prove it.”

This is a strong statement by NPR that should serve as a stern warning to its journalists. In contrast, the New York Times is much more open to journalists retweeting due to the belief that the meaning of a retweet is shifting.

Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times told Poynter he thinks, “Twitter users by now understand that a retweet involves sharing or pointing something out, not necessarily advocating or endorsing.”

Corbett’s point is the other side of the argument on what exact purpose a retweet serves. While many people agree with him, there are many others that still view retweets as endorsements. Thus, it’s a grey area.

Patrick LaForge, who also works for the Times, is credited with initially using the phrase “retweets are not endorsements” several years ago. But he told Buzzfeed that it makes him cringe now, perhaps because of how commonly it is now used.

Examples of media professionals deploying the "Retweets are not endorsements" phrase, via BuzzFeed

In fact, the Buzzfeed article found that over 30,000 people use some variation of the phrase in their Twitter bio.

Bottom line: when I decide to retweet something, I do so with the understanding that I’ve chosen to publicly associate myself with that information. I might simply think something is funny or ironic, but even in those cases I exercise enough caution to avoid explicitly offensive material.

Whether or not you believe retweets are endorsements, you need to realize that the public may have a different opinion than you. In that case, it’s better to keep things simple and avoid retweeting controversial material.

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