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The Guardian apologizes for an inaccurate re-tweet.

Twitter’s role in the Iranian election aftermath leaves no doubt about its power as a global, real time, citizen-journalism style news wire service, along with a tool for facilitating dissent, while countering the view of Twitter as simply a zone for egotistical banality. But it also highlighted Twitter’s role as a platform and content generator for traditional media outlets, along with some of the key dilemmas being faced by professional journalists in the Twittersphere.

I’ve been researching the ways in which journalists and traditional media outlets are using Twitter and exploring the ethical dilemmas raised by the clash of the private and the public for journalists in the sphere via interviews with Australian, US and South African journalists. And, while I’m convinced Twitter is now a vital journalistic tool for both reporting events and breaking down barriers between legacy media and its audiences, there are still multiple questions around professional journalists’ activities on Twitter that require thoughtful, open debate.

While many journalists recognize Twitter’s power as a reporting tool, some news organizations are still reluctant to embrace it while others have issued rules restraining their writers’ use of the service. In this third installment of my Mediashift series on the intersection of journalism and Twitter, I’ll attempt to determine the rules of engagement for tweeting journalists.

Rules of Engagement

Some media outlets are making tweeting almost compulsory for their journalists but others are much more cautious, or even ban journalists from tweeting on the job. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times , Bloomberg and AP (among others) have all introduced policies covering social media, partly in response to problems resulting from the unique mix of personal and professional information in the zone. Some of these policies have been criticized for missing the point of social media — humanized interaction — and too rigidly regulating journalists’ tweeting.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The previous paragraph had referred to the newspapers’ social media policies as “conservative.” That descriptor was removed in recognition of the distinctions between their various policies, and in light of a comment from the Times’ Jonathan Landman, below.]

But in Australia, journo-tweeting is largely unregulated by media outlets. None of the 25 Australian journalists I interviewed for this study (from Fairfax, News Ltd, ABC, ACP, Sky News and a range of smaller outlets) was aware of such a policy in their workplace. According to some of the interviewees, management ignorance could account for the absence of such policies. When asked why he thought his Australian employer didn’t have a policy like the WSJ, one journalist responded, “They just don’t get it.”

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There’s growing realization among employers, however, that guidelines may be a helpful adjunct to corporate editorial policies in the brave new world of social media. There’s evidence of a policy shift at the powerful Fairfax group, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. Asher Moses (who was at the center of the tweeting controversy featured in part two of this series) indicated that, even though there was no official policy, the company had expectations that he could tweet either for professional or personal use but not both.

And the ABC is currently consulting staff as a precursor to publishing new guidelines.

“I think they’re still feeling their way on social networking sites. It’s a new world and they’re trying to figure out exactly how to approach it,” prominent ABC presenter Leigh Sales said.

Newsrooms Blocking Twitter at Work

But some employers are either so afraid of the platform or so disdainful about its journalistic potential that they’ve tried to bar their reporters from even accessing Twitter in the workplace. The Sydney Star Observer’s (SSO) Harley Dennett says he’s denied access to both his Facebook and Twitter accounts at work via web filters on office computers.

“The publishing editor said staff can make those contacts in their own time,” he explained. “But I get around that by using the Tweetie desktop and iPhone applications. I do so openly and unashamedly.”

Nevertheless, Dennett’s newspaper happily prints copy generated by his extra-curricular tweeting.

“During news conferences I declare if a story originated from Twitter, but my editor has never verbally acknowledged that,” he said. “I can’t explain the resistance to popular social media and networking websites. Personally, I would welcome some guidance from my employer on Twitter use, if it made sense at least.”

The SSO’s policy is clearly a short-sighted and narrow-minded approach to managing the issues raised by journalists’ interactions with social networking sites but it’s not an isolated example.

Jonathan Ancer, from South Africa’s Independent Newspapers group, which publishes Johannesburg’s The Star along with other influential titles, plans to use Twitter to help trainee journalists to write with brevity and clarity, but he is also barred from Twitter at work.

“When I tried to log onto Twitter a few days ago, I was surprised to find myself blocked with a note saying my attempt to access porn had been recorded,” he said. “I think media companies should open up access to Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms because this is where people — readers, eyeballs, etc. — are going.”

However, while individual journalists with the Independent group may have difficulty accessing Twitter, the company’s online publication has a moderately active Twitter account. South Africa’s media certainly need to make active use of Twitter ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup when they’ll be seeking the world’s eyeballs.

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Australia’s national parliament in Canberra where journalists have been granted permission to live-tweet parliamentary sessions.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the Speaker of the Federal Parliament recently approved live tweeting from the floor of the House of Representatives during Question Time via cell or PC. This breaks a decades-long ban on reporting from inside the House. This will likely both enliven political reporting and make it impossible for resistant journalists and media outlets Down Under to continue holding out.

As Twitter becomes entrenched in daily reporting practice, it would seem appropriate for media organizations to update existing editorial guidelines to make them relevant to social media platforms like Twitter. But if they want to bank on the significant benefits that can flow from their participation in the Twittersphere (such as developing new audiences and enhancing traffic to their websites), they will need to ensure their journalists have unfettered access to the site and also be flexible about interactions in the space to encourage reporters to engage in conversations with their followers.

What principles guide J-Twits?

So, for those journalists who tweet according to their own personal code, what principles guide them? For the ABC’s Leigh Sales, it’s a mix of gut instinct and rules derived from industry experience.

“If I have even the slightest hesitation about posting something, for example, a slightly off-color witticism, I choose not to post it,” she said. “I don’t post gags about stories on which I may have to report seriously. I don’t put any significant personal content on Twitter. I may occasionally say that I’ve been to a movie or express a like or dislike, but I don’t engage in personal chit-chat…I view it as a professional tool.”

Dave Earley from Brisbane’s Courier Mail has changed his approach since Twitter began hitting the headlines.

“Until Twitter’s recent media exposure, my Twitter account had remained relatively unknown in my workplace,” he said. “Now that it’s on the radar, I’m probably more conscious of what I say.”

Early also chooses not to “tweet angry.”

“I do try to make sure my tweets are never inflammatory, there’s no point setting out to make enemies,” he said.

For John Bergin of Sky News, it’s a case of common sense and basic training.

“Our journalists receive legal training,” he said. “Issues such as defamation, contempt of court, statutory restrictions and so forth should apply as much to the online world as they do in the offline. Obviously, anything that is private and confidential in a newsroom should remain so — again, common sense and respect for the workplace and its people is paramount.”

But Harley Dennett’s approach is to tweet independently of his employer. This allows him to publicly criticize his paper and its policies if he desires — an act which he believes demonstrates transparency and buys him credibility with his followers.

“Increasingly, I’m confident the best model is for the journo to have a direct relationship with their Twitter followers independent of the media outlet that employs him or her,” he said. “The spectre of a big media outlet appearing to control what a journo says online would also really hamper that personal quality that Twitter can bring out of a conversation.”

Lessons from Iran

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The Green Wave protest in Tehran.

What information on Twitter is fair game for a journalist to report? There needs to be further discussion between media professionals, their employers, journalism academics and social media experts to help navigate this complex territory. But my preliminary views go like this: Although social media etiquette may not recognize a journalist’s right to report any material published openly, the reality is that open Twitter accounts are a matter of permanent public record and fair game for journalists. While attribution is vital and it might be polite (but not necessary) to seek the approval of a Twitterer to quote them, I don’t see anything unethical about using tweets in mainstream news coverage. However, the locked Twitter account is a more delicate matter. I’d suggest that a locked account amounts to an “off the record” comment which requires permission from the tweeter before re-publishing.

And does re-tweeting (or RT) — re-publishing someone else’s tweet — equate to giving their tweets your professional stamp of approval if you tweet openly as a practicing journalist? If you are passing on information to your “followers,” do you have an obligation to first establish the information’s authenticity or acknowledge it as “unconfirmed” — an obligation many journalists would feel if they were doing the same for a newspaper or broadcaster?

When I raised concerns this week about the practice of tweeters who openly identify as professional journalists re-tweeting without verification, in the context of the indiscriminate dissemination of tweets claiming to emanate from Iran, I found myself engaged in a lively discussion on Twitter. I asserted that when Patrick LaForge, an editor at the New York Times, re-tweeted (without acknowledgement of verification or absence thereof) a list of Iranian tweeters sourced from expert blogger Dave Winer (who had, in turn, passed on the list without verifying its contents) it amounted to an approval of that list. LaForge disagreed. NYU’s Jay Rosen then reminded me not to expect open systems like Twitter to behave in the same manner expected of editorial systems.

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Pat LaForge’s Twitter page disclaimer.

But while I agree with Rosen, my concern wasn’t directed at the unmediated Twittersphere. Rather it was directed at the way journalists approach this flood of information. I’m of the view that 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. This goes to their professional credibility and their employer’s.

Therefore, while I wouldn’t for a minute suggest journalists step back from reporting on social media contributions flowing from zones like Iran, nor from repeating tweets purporting to represent witness accounts — clearly these are valid contemporary storytelling devices — I do think they need to critically assess information to the best of their capacity before republishing it and, if there’s no way to do so, flag this with “unconfirmed” or some other abbreviated signal that the information has not been substantiated by the journalist.

In many international settings, there are legal as well as ethical imperatives to consider here. If you inadvertently RT a defamatory tweet in Australia, for example, arguing “I was just passing on a link,” would not be a defense against a defamation action.

Writing in The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder advises readers to treat the flood of information from Iran like a CIA analyst would — sifting it and weighing it up. I think that’s sage advice for professional journalists operating on Twitter, too. The ABC provided a good example of an appropriate approach to this problem in their online amalgamation of the social media coverage of Iran by simply acknowledging that some of the content was unable to be substantiated. (These issues will be a theme at the #media140 conference to be held in Sydney later this year.)

Top 20 Take Away Tips for Tweeting Journos

1) Think before you tweet — you can’t delete an indiscreet tweet! (Well, you can, but it will survive in Twitter search for three months and it’s likely live on as cached copy somewhere.)
2) Think carefully about what you’re re-tweeting and acknowledge if it’s unsubstantiated.
3) Be an active twit: tweet daily if you want your followers to stick.
4) Determine your Twitter identity.
5) Be human; be honest; be open; be active.
6) Don’t lock your account if you want to use Twitter for reporting purposes — this fosters distrust.
7) Twitter is a community, not just a one-way conversation or broadcast channel — actively engage.
8) Check if your employer has a social media policy.
9) Be cautious when tweeting about your employer/workplace/colleagues.
10) Be a judicious follower — don’t be stingy but avoid following everyone as your list grows to avoid tweet bombardment.
11) If you quote a tweet, attribute it.
12) Expect your competitors to steal your leads if you tweet about them.
13) Don’t tweet while angry or drunk.
14) Avoid racist, sexist, bigoted and otherwise offensive tweets and never abuse a follower.
15) Scrutinize crowdsourced stories closely.
16) Find people to follow. Foster followers by pilfering the lists of other twits.
17) Twitter is a ‘time vampire’ (via @anne_brand) — you don’t need to keep track of all tweets, so dip in and out through the day.
18) Prevent information overload by using an application such as Tweetdeck.
19) Add applications to your Internet-enabled mobile device to allow live-tweeting on the road.
20) Add value to your tweets with links, Twitpic and other applications for audio and video.

A useful resource: You can find a list of the top 100 Australian media professionals on Twitter compiled by @earleyedition here.

UPDATE: Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, responds in comments to the contention that the Times had a “conservative” social media policy:

Actually, The New York Times does not have a conservative code of conduct for social media. It does not have any code of conduct for social media.

What it does have is a comprehensive set of ethical and practical standards compiled in a handbook, last issued in 2004 and updated and amended from time to time afterward. It is a guide for Times journalists in print, online, over the air and in life. One of the updates is entitled ‘Using Facebook in Reporting.’ It says, among other things, that social networking sites ‘can be remarkably useful reporting tools.’ It also sets forth some reasons for caution — any tool, misused, can be dangerous.

You can read both the ethics guidelines and the Facebook update here and judge for yourself whether they are ‘conservative’ and/or clueless about social media. Personally, I think that’s a bum rap…

The Times also has a social media editor, a new position. Her job is to identify the most promising journalistic uses of these tools and then to teach and encourage Times journalists to deploy them. It is quite possible that her work will include publishing her recommendations for all to see and use, maybe even in the form of a code. It will not miss the point of social media.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

Green Wave protest photo by Hamed Saber via Flickr

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