Three things student journalists should know about retweets

By Andrew Gibson

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Josef Dunne
One of the first things I did after taking over as ONA Mizzou social-media coordinator was read about retweeting best practices. That turned out to be some of the best time I've ever spent. 

Proper attribution, adherence to organizational guidelines, and conciseness can define an effective Twitter presence. We want your handle to stand out on the Web, so here are three things you may not know about retweeting.   

RT isn't the only important two-letter combination

If someone points you to a link, but you don't want to retweet that person verbatim, use a "hat tip." You can abbreviate it as "h/t" or "HT." This sign of Twitter politeness allows you to introduce links in your own words while maintaining the attribution chain. 

Here's a tweet from Jeff Jarvis:

And here's how we rephrased it:

You may have also seen "modified retweets," or "MTs." If you're retweeting someone after having edited that person's words to fit 140 characters, write this instead of RT. But be careful: It's a sign of transparency, not an excuse for distortion. 

"Etiquette dictates you should edit for brevity or clarity, without changing the meaning or spirit of the original tweet," writes Jeff Sonderman, the digital-media fellow at the Poynter Institute.

In the same Nov. 8 Poynter story, Sonderman proposes yet another retweeting style: the "neutral retweet." It would indicate that journalists are spreading information simply because it's valuable. 

"With only 140 characters available, you can’t afford to waste 90 of them on an elaborate preface like, 'I do not necessarily agree with this statement, but I thought it was notable enough to call to your attention,'" he writes.

"But perhaps journalists could convey that sentiment by creating a 'neutral retweet' for the times when they want to repost something but don’t want people to read anything into their motives," he continues.

There is little evidence to indicate Sonderman's idea has caught fire. But it does contribute to an important, albeit worn out, question: Is transparency the new objectivity?
Retweets may or may not be endorsements

This debate has been going on for a while, and the bottom line is: Be careful. 

"Editors at Portland's Oregonian are in the process of finalizing a set of guidelines for Twitter, which will include a specific section on retweeting," writes Caitlin Johnston, a University of Maryland graduate student, for the American Journalism Review. "The new rules will urge reporters to assume any retweet is seen as an endorsement, not just passing something along, Editor Peter Bhatia says."

The Associated Press also isn't taking any chances.

"Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a
personal opinion on the issues of the day," according to the organization's social-media guidelines. "A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying."

"These cautions apply even if you say on your Twitter profile that retweets do not constitute endorsements," according to the guidelines.

The Washington Post has a slightly different take on it.

"Disclaimers about 'personal' content do not exempt us from our journalistic ethics and standards; however, bios should make clear that links and RTs don’t equal endorsements," according to the newspaper's digital guidelines.

And some favor a hands-off approach:

"Editors should trust journalists to know when a retweet needs some explanation and when it stands on its own," writes Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media for Journal Register Co., on Dec. 6. "When editors disagree with how a staff member handles some retweets, they should discuss their concerns, encouraging strong Twitter engagement but noting why they didn’t like a particular decision. But I favor trusting judgment and having conversations about good judgment over guidelines that inhibit people’s use of Twitter."

Who knew 140 characters could be so complicated?

Fewer than 140 characters is better.

This will encourage people to retweet you. The more empty characters you leave, the easier it is for the audience to interact: 

Dave Larson of TweetSmarter recommends saving at least 19 characters, but you'll often see tweets that dip below 100. The Time magazine and Huffington Post feeds exhibit great conciseness. 

Do you have retweeting advice? Drop us a comment.

Side note: I recommend reading all of "How Misunderstanding Retweets Can Get You Suspended From Twitter." This post from Dave Larson on TweetSmarter has great tips for properly attributing others. It has become my bible of retweet etiquette. 

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