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A Report of the Ethics Advisory Committee of The Canadian Association of Journalists
June 4th, 2010
The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the Social Media panel to propose guidelines for retweeting, or forwarding through social networks, information that originates from followers.
The issue applies mainly to using Twitter in breaking news situations but it also applies to reposting information in other social networks such as Facebook.
The primary issue is the risk of distributing untrue information. A related issue is the risk of
seeming to endorse the opinions of others.
To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations and
the opinions of leading commentators on the issue.

The power of social networks to amplify breaking news reports was illustrated in
January 2009 when Florida entrepreneur Janis Krums tweeted a photo of a U.S.
Airways plane in New Yorks Hudson River. Krums had only 170 followers at the time
but retweets resulted in thousands of people viewing the photo within minutes. The
event underscored the swiftness of the medium and the potential for crowdsourced
reporting from eyewitnesses first on the scene. It highlighted the growing importance of
social networks in gathering information that can supplement and improve the
work of reporters.
Five months later in June 2009, Iranians produced a flood of reports on Twitter, which
offered news organizations real-time information about the protests in the country.
Government suppression of independent reporting meant it was difficult to get
information from other sources. The Project for Excellence in Journalism called it a
Twitter Revolution. Some journalists used the stream of information to share the
perspectives of Iranians and help their social media audience better understand the
event. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge re-tweeted a list of Iranians on Twitter
that was created by blogger Dave Winer. He argued he was sharing information without

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providing judgment on it; he was letting his audience decide how they would treat it.
However, journalist and academic Julie Posetti argued Laforges action amounted to
approving the list and endorsing its authenticity. She stated, Professional journalists
will be judged more harshly by society if they RT content which later proves to be false -particularly in the context of a crisis.
In November 2009, news organizations repeated Twitter mentions of multiple gunmen
in a shooting incident at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. In fact, an army psychiatrist
was the sole shooter. The Radio Television Digital News Association argues in its
ethical guidelines that the news organizations used proper instincts in repeating the
information even though it was later proved to be false. If it was true, it could have
saved lives. Still, the associations guidelines state: Journalists must source
information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the
information is fluid and could be unreliable.
Perhaps the most well-known episode of re-tweeting involves Mathew Ingram,
formerly the Globe and Mails communities editor.
In October 2008, Ingram tweeted that a citizen media update on CNNs iReport was
claiming that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The iReport piece led to
a significant but temporary decline in the price of Apples stock. Ingram soon found
out the report was untrue and issued a clarification but he was sharply criticized for his
actions. In his blog he later called his initial decision a mistake, saying he should have
waited to verify it. But nine months later, he told CBC Radios Ira Basen for his radio
documentary: I might have posted it anyway. He called the event a sign of journalism
as a process working, suggesting that, instead of being absent in the real-time social
flow of information, journalists should rely on people to make their own judgments.
CUNY School of Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis calls this perspective journalism as
beta and argues that forwarding unconfirmed information is acceptable journalistic
practice as long as journalists label the information as unconfirmed. He says web culture
is a call to collaborate and likens the demands on the audience to that of 24-hour
cable news, where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference
between what is known now and what can be confirmed later.
Journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen agrees, saying, One of the beauties of
social media is its fluidity. It would be impossible for all of the millions of people on
Twitter to verify every tweet before passing it on. Twitter isnt a news medium. I think
theres an expectation that Twitter is the start of a conversation to prompt people to find
out more, not the be all and end all.
However, the practice of re-tweet first, verify later would seem at odds with
established journalistic practice of verifying before publishing. The Associated Presss
social media guidelines, as disclosed to, state: Dont report things or break
news that we havent published, no matter the format, and that includes retweeting
unconfirmed information not fit for APs wires. The implied argument is that a
journalist or news organizations reputation is built on a record of accurate publishing

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in any form. Being a reliable source of information at all times is paramount. The risk
of distributing untrue information threatens an organizations reputation.
Journalist Robert Niles however, argues, that the effect of such a policy is that news
organizations become absent in the social media conversation of breaking news events.
He argues instead that: smart news organizations should acknowledge to their
followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking
about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting. He states further
Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But traditional newsroom silence on rumors
don't make them go away.
In considering these views, ethicist Stephen Ward suggests that any guidelines
balance the strengths of social media, including its love of collaboration and
transparency. However, it must also adhere to a plurality of ethical principles as to
how well they honour or violate the principles of journalism as a whole.
Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry argues against blanket
prohibitions in social media policies, saying such phrasing reflects old-media
opaqueness and control, rather than new-media transparency. He argues instead for
social media policies that include recognition of the fact that social media help us
collaborate, continue and improve our stories.

Overview of Newsroom Guidelines

A growing number of media organizations are establishing guidelines for social media
use. Most of these policies see social media as an important tool for newsgathering and
audience engagement. At the same time they caution against publishing anything that
brings the organization into disrepute. Many policies address using Twitter as a
reporting tool. However, relatively few address the issue of journalists forwarding
information through social media in an effort to build community and participate in
real-time conversations of news events.
The following is a summary of the ones that do:
The L.A. Times policy is similar to APs. It applies traditional standards of publishing
to Twitter use, stating: Authentication is essential: Verify sourcing after collecting
information online. When transmitting information online as in re-Tweeting material
from other sources apply the same standards and level of caution you would in more
formal publication.
The BBC, however, encourages re-tweeting while cautioning users against appearing to
endorse the content. It states (PDF): It may not be enough to write on your BBC
microblogs biography page that retweeting does not signify endorsement, particularly
if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy.
Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the tweet you have selected,
making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice
and where you are quoting someone elses.

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Reuters policy states generally that material from social media sites can help us
enhance our reporting, and our reputation, and this trend should be embraced. But it
encourages people to be wary of information or images posted by Twitter etc users and
advises: Strict criteria should be applied in deciding whether to use it, and if we do so,
we must be clear about what we know and dont know about its provenance. Reuters
allows for 'retweeting' (re-publishing) someone else's scoop, but encourages a critical
eye. It states: It's simple to share a link on Twitter, Facebook and other networks but as
a Reuters journalist if you repeat something that turns out to be a hoax, or suggests you
support a particular line of argument, then you risk undermining your own credibility
and that of Reuters News.
The Washington Post's social media policy states generally that Post journalists
must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything that could be used to tarnish
our journalistic credibility.
The Roanoke (Virginia) Times advises against issuing reports of breaking news on
Twitter, stating: While Twitter represents a growing audience for us online we should
generally post breaking news first on the site, then tweet the URL.

The panel concludes that participation in real-time conversations can be an important
newsgathering and audience-building tool for journalists and the organizations they
represent. It represents a new and valuable resource that can enhance journalism.
However, forwarding information that is ultimately proven untrue comes with risks that

Harming people. Information could give away the location of a police tactical
unit in a hostage situation or give a person contemplating a suicide a greater
audience. It could also cause a panic if it mentioned that a bomb had been found
in an office tower.
Moving financial markets: Information about a business or a business leader
could lead to rapid rises or declines in stock prices.
Violating common decency: Information could cause undue emotional
distress to people if it identifies victims (by name or social media username),
especially if relatives have not been notified.

The panel stresses that people who work in the news media should always strive to
produce the most accurate and credibly sourced work they can. In doing so, the best
approach is always to verify information before forwarding it through social networks.
Traditional journalistic values remain unchanged as new technologies emerge. The
challenge facing journalists is to apply these values to rapidly changing means of

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However, the panel acknowledges that gathering and sharing information within social
media constitutes a process of journalism, not a finished product.
The panel acknowledges that criteria for forwarding information would be useful.
However, it views forwarding information through social networks as a rapidly evolving
and amorphous practice that makes establishing criteria difficult. For example,
journalists would normally apply different standards of verification depending on the
context of the information being forwarded. A surprising tweet with strong news value
might require corroboration, whereas a lighthearted observation in the form of opinion
might require none.
The decision to forward unverified information should always weigh the value of getting
information out to the audience quickly with the risk of causing harm. In particular,
journalists should apply extreme caution and skepticism to surprising information
tweeted by third parties especially when it reflects negatively on a person or an
If journalists choose to forward information through social networks that they cannot
verify, the panel suggests they consider the following guidelines:

Journalists should, at all times, seek to verify the source of the information by
applying the usual skepticism to the source of unverified information. For
o Who is the source?
o How is the source likely to know this? What is their ability to obtain the
information first hand?
o What does the sources past history say about their credibility? Does the
source have some record in their social media history of seriousness and
reputable behaviour?
o Where does the source get funding?
o What are the sources possible political allegiances?
Some useful resources are contained in Craig Kanalleys How to verify a

Journalists should take note of Twitters Verified Accounts feature, which

authenticates a users identify, and use it as a tool for building trusted
relationships with Twitter sources.

Journalists forwarding or re-tweeting information from other sources should aim

to be transparent in their sourcing and their methods. They should:
o Describe what they know of the information (Eg. unconfirmed report)
o Describe the stage of their investigation (Eg. were looking into it)
o Identify source of the information (person or organization)
o Provide a link to the report

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Journalists should issue updates, including corrections, on the status of their

follow-up investigations promptly and frequently. (Eg. The original report was
untrue or We cant confirm the report)
Some good advice is available in Craig Silvermans article on correcting tweets

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