Stupid is as stupid tweets: Six tips for Twitter users

Yesterday, during a conversation with a good (non-journalist) friend, the talk steered toward the News of the World scandal and the Kansas City Star’s sacking of columnist Steve Penn for plagiarism. (Full disclosure: As discussed numerous times on this site, I interned with the Star last summer.)

He was angry about the NOTW’s alleged phone hacking, while I was flummoxed as to how any professional journalist could plagiarize in this era and expect not to get caught. The ending question was the same for both of us: How could anyone be so stupid?

Fast forward to this afternoon, when the BBC posted an updated list of social media guidelines. Included, verbatim, in the guidelines is the blunt advice, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

After laughing a little, I thought, “Well, what does that mean?”

The BBC guidelines suggest that its journalists should avoid overt partisanship on sites like Twitter, that any “official” tweets should be read by at least two people, and that “official” BBC personality profiles should be kept professional at all times.

The tips were common-sense enough, almost deceptively so. Social media — especially Twitter, but theoretically any such site — is fraught with potential mistakes and lapses in judgment. In print, your words go through an assignment editor, a slot editor, a rim copy editor and a proofreader. Any flagrant stupidity is, I hope, flushed out. If nothing else, there’s time to consider words and allow anger to cool off.

With Twitter, though, it’s easy to slip in a moment of hot-headedness. In 15 seconds, you could type and post something that you’ll regret for years. Journalists have been fired or asked to resign over tweets. So have spokespeople. Not to mention political candidates and public relations workers. Whether their terminations were justified is beside the point; their employers determined that their tweets were inappropriate to the point where they were sacked.

So how can you avoid this? How can you not “do anything stupid”?

1. If you tweet for your job, I’d consider having two separate profiles, a personal one and a professional one (example: @john_doe, @john_doe_kcstar). Many journalists I follow on Twitter have just one profile for both personal and professional use, and that’s fine. But it’s something to think about, especially if you’re new to Twitter or unsure about your company’s precise policies.

2. If you keep one all-purpose Twitter account, it’s worth using up biographic real estate to cover your butt. “RTs are not endorsements.” “A follow is not an endorsement.” “My opinions are my own.” Obviously this won’t be enough to save you if you’re flagrantly misusing Twitter, but it does create a conscientious wall between your personal views and your professional ones.

3. Avoid getting into Twitter spats with readers. I see far too many writers (a lot of them columnists) engaging in prolonged insult-fests with members of the public. A reasoned response or even a tart one-liner is probably fine. But it just looks childish if your feed is clogged with a back-and-forth argument. The longer it goes on, the angrier you’ll get and the likelier it is that you’ll say something stupid. Remember, if you’re arguing with an idiot, so is he.

4. For the love of all that is holy, know the difference between normal tweets and direct messages. Let’s not say that Anthony Weiner’s political downfall was in vain, yeah?

5. If you retweet anything — especially if it’s a photo or a link — make sure that it says or displays what you think it does. Never retweet anything blindly (I admit I’m guilty of this when I’m in a hurry). If you think you’re linking to a Times story, make sure you’re linking to a Times story. Nothing is more annoying and embarrassing than unknowingly retweeting spam or something else that’s inappropriate. In the same vein, if you’re following people and reporting on their tweets, make sure that what you’re following are their real accounts, and not parodies.

6. The adage that it’s better to be correct than first is true with Twitter as well. Before you fire off a tweet, edit yourself. Without a copy desk, the responsibility is even more on you to make a good decision. Let it sit for a few minutes, however long it takes. Is it something you’d say face to face with someone? Would you include it in a print or Web story with your byline? Does it target anyone based on religion, race or gender, even in jest? Does it contain profanity? When in doubt, don’t hit send.

Twitter at this point is an absolute necessity for journalists, politicians and most major companies, but it can be a double-edged sword. So tweet smart.

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A note on News of the World

Last week, it broke that News of the World, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had allegedly hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. As the week progressed, more allegations came out. The hacking victims now allegedly included military families and July 7 attack victims, and there were whispers of possible police corruption. The scandal broke at a bad time for Murdoch, as he prepared to bid for a heavier share of BSkyB, a deal that now looks likely to fall through. Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director, is embroiled in the controversy, as is Rebekah Brooks, former NOTW editor. NOTW itself has formally stopped publishing.

Plenty of people, including members of Parliament and media rivals, have trashed NOTW for its legal and ethical violations. But in throwing the tabloid (I won’t call it a newspaper) under the bus, I think we’ve missed a real opportunity to evaluate NOTW’s actions and have a debate about how this actually affects the public’s trust in journalists.

Before it was closed, NOTW beat out the Guardian, Telepgraph and Independent in readership — a “red top” gossip sheet had a bigger audience share than Britain’s big three national (and respectable) newspapers. In this sense, NOTW’s tragedy (in terms of what it wrought, not its ultimate demise) is also a readership tragedy. What they peddled, sold well. Does the public have at least some ownership in this debacle, given its appetite for salaciousness?

Given the rabid nature of British tabloids, I perceive that it’s difficult here for journalists to command and maintain trust and respect. Many newspapers, if not most, have outright political leanings, which, to their credit, they make no attempt to hide. Even the BBC isn’t without controversy, whether it’s down to salaries or coverage. I imagine that it’d be frustrating for a legitimate journalist in Britain now, constantly being suspected of hacking, political hit jobs, bias, graft and who knows what else. The many may be tarred by the actions of a few. News International also represents, to many, a corporate infestation in the media. Of course all media is corporate in some sense, but  as Murdoch (who is not a British citizen) attempts to buy more and more information properties, the public and the government have legitimate concerns about his outsized influence in politics and culture.

The NOTW’s greatest crime, in the end, may be its devastating blow to the nation’s journalism profession and its integrity.