news literacy

Trusting Twitter

News literacy experts say journalists should remain professional on Twitter--but that readers should still be skeptical of everything they read on the platform
January 23, 2014

Few things feel more personal than my Twitter feed. I tweet without the meddling of an editor. I use it to broadcast my thoughts on minutiae such as what I had for lunch, whether I dressed appropriately for the weather that morning, and my delight or irritation at the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire. There’s a reason someone made a hilarious video about how the only person who cares about people’s Twitter accounts are their Jewish moms. 

And so it is easy to understand the sense of violation felt by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott after one of his tweets was quoted in a full-page ad for Inside Llewyn Davis in his own newspaper. “You all keep fighting about Wolf of Wall St. and Am Hustle,” Scott tweeted. “I’m gonna listen to the Llewyn Davis album again. Fare thee well, my honeys.” The ad chopped off the first sentence, reproducing the second part. 

The film’s publicist emailed for Scott’s permission to quote from his tweet. “I’d prefer… that my tweets not be used in advertisements. That seems like a slippery slope and contrary to the ad hoc and informal nature of the medium,” he replied, as quoted in a Public Editor column (He also objected to cutting his tweet but presenting it as if it were being reproduced in full.) They ran the ad anyway. 

Does Scott have a good reason to be upset? If you share his sense that a journalist’s tweets are not official pronouncements, then yes. 

But most journalism professors and experts on news literacy–the emerging field of teaching students how to be discerning news consumers–say a journalist is always acting in a professional capacity when posting on social media. And that means adhering to the standards of the outlet they work for, or the kind of outlet they aspire to join: no opining, unless they are opinion journalists, and no passing on information without proper verification. 

At the same time, in recognition of the fact that most journalists act like civilians on social media, using their feeds as forums for sharing intimate or fleeting thoughts with friends, followers, and fans, news literacy educators warn students against assuming anything on Twitter is accurate, even if tweeted by a reporter.  

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Always a journalist

Professors of journalism and news literacy appear unanimous in their view that journalists are always acting as such, even if they’re tweeting from home about what they see out of their window rather than, say, an interview with a source on their beat. And so, they argue, aside from making grammatical allowances for Twitter’s tone and its space limitations, journalists’ tweets should not differ from what they would publish in an article. That, say news literacy teachers, is how a journalist will build authority with a Twitter audience similar to that of a respected news outlet. 

“I think, ideally, journalists on social media are still journalists, and they have to abide by the same rules whether their name is in print or on their Twitter feed,” says Caryn Ward Brooks, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. “The tone could differ on Twitter or Facebook–it could be more conversational. But the requirements of fairness, accuracy, well-sourced, and unbiased information still remains.” 

This is especially important because, for digital natives, media consumption is platform agnostic–a Twitter feed and are both just websites, visited in rapid succession. And so, say news literacy and journalism experts, no one should let their standards slip just because they are posting something on Twitter instead of their publication’s website. It’s a hard trap to avoid, because the same lack of editing that makes me love Twitter also prevents anyone from stopping a 2am drunk tweet. And when you work in the media, everyone is ready to parse tweets for any hint of bias, sloppiness, or bigotry. “Twitter is probably the best example of the need to be careful when you create digital information, particularly on social media–to pause and think it through,” says Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project‘s senior vice president for educational programs. Adams points to former IAC PR executive Justine Sacco, who recently lost her job after tweeting a joke about AIDS in Africa. 

Trusting tweets

News literacy experts emphasize to students that when stumbling across a tweet offering new information, it’s a good idea to check out the owner’s Twitter bio and tweeting history. 

“Look at what this person has tweeted in the past,” says Adams via email. “How active have they been? How credible are their other tweets? If they are tweeting breaking news, is this something they do a lot or is this the first time?” Essentially, it boils down to examining claims to see if they are proven, same as with any other form of media. What’s the evidence for a factual assertion? Does it come with a picture? Is it sourced to a legitimate authority? News literacy teaches students to “look for some kind of confirmation and documentation when following news (especially breaking news) on Twitter,” Adams says.

This is important because, on social media platforms like Twitter, every user, not just journalists, can transmit information with the same level of potential reach. That is, everyone is a potential journalist. At the same time, Twitter itself estimates that around 5 percent of its accounts are fakes, and academic researchers suggest the number may be twice that high. It is wise for every reader to make sure an account for a celebrity is legitimate. (Usually they will have the “verified account” checkmark.) Journalists, of course, need to do the same before reporting something a famous person or public official tweets.

And just like average readers, reporters should verify claims being tweeted before repeating them. In an example frequently used in news literacy curricula, a hoaxster under the anonymous handle @ComfortablySmug invented a blackout in Manhattan and a flood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during Hurricane Sandy. Both were widely retweeted, and the latter was reported by CNN. The man behind the Twitter account, Shashank Tripathi, was a Republican consultant, not a reporter. “A reader could have looked at the Twitter history of the guy claiming the Stock Exchange was flooded, before retweeting that,” says Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. “They could have looked at his history and known not to repeat this other than to call it BS. You can see he’s got this very snarky, very not neutral approach, and that he’s done hoaxy stuff before.” 

Relative to traditional outlets such as TV, radio, and print, Twitter has the unique advantage of allowing direct interrogation of someone making a claim. Adams notes: “Some people asked @ComfortablySmug how he knew that the NYSE was underwater, and he didn’t respond or provide any source for this information.” That was a red flag; on Twitter, where every reader can also be a reporter, they need to think like one. 

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.