NPR: You can’t handle the retweet

Do newsroom bosses give the audience enough credit for understanding social media?

NPR has put the question in the spotlight after an education reporter tweeted on an NPR account that while she tries to provide diverse voices, only the white voices call her back.

That’s a typical social media grenade and one of NPR’s news bosses reminded the staff not to tweet something they wouldn’t want to say on the radio. Simple.

But then Mark Memmot, the network’s standards and practices boss, added this instruction that had little to do with the original infraction.

“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,’ provide it.”

Understandably, news organizations are scared to death that their brand will be damaged on Twitter, a risk that can only be eliminated if news people aren’t on Twitter at all; that’s just the way the world is. Like it or not, it’s never going to be 1965 again.

But, it’s fair to say, most people on Twitter understand what a retweet (RT) is, a way for someone to say “hey, look at this!”

“The fact that Memmot took this opportunity to reiterate the dangers of retweeting is a little puzzling” Poynter’s Sam Kirkland writes today. “Besides, the policy doesn’t seem to give readers much credit for understanding how Twitter works.”

It also ignores that some of NPR’s best coverage of the Arab Spring, came from former staffer Andy Carvin, who aggregated and retweeted tweets from Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, usually from someone with skin — literally — in the game.

“At one level, this is nonsense,” Neiman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton writes. “People use their personal accounts for a whole variety of things. The universe of news-related things is only a subset — for some, a small subset. A happy note about your kid’s first steps would never be worth putting on air, but it’s totally fine for Twitter; a job is only a part of a life. To say that ‘we don’t behave any differently [on personal social media] than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast’ is just silliness.

“NPR has gotten pretty far assuming that its audience is intelligent and reasonable enough that it doesn’t need to be talked down to. The idea that retweeting a politician’s comment is somehow an endorsement of that comment assumes that your followers are idiots. They’re not.”

Curiously, the debate comes at a time when the fear of being misinterpreted has turned many journalists into stenographers, merely repeating assertions and quotes of, say, politicians, without any critical evaluation of the merit. Theoretically, under the NPR’s philos0phy, that constitutes an endorsement.