Social media has had a massive impact on news-gathering and dissemination. Major newswire institutions like Reuters and the Associated Press have hired social media editors, adopting new platforms as a way to get information out quickly while larger articles are in the works. But with the immediacy of a tweet or post comes the danger of muddling the debate or making an offhand comment that someone will later regret. This became more evident than ever with the Boston Marathon bombings, when information from police scanners and rumors from Twitter quickly began feeding into each other. Several weeks later, the AP has refreshed its social media guidelines, urging staff members to "avoid spreading unconfirmed rumors through tweets and posts."
The AP has had social media guidelines in place for some time, and previous versions prohibit posting material that "spreads rumors." A new revision, though, explicitly expands this rule.
Staffers should always refrain from spreading unconfirmed rumors online, regardless of whether other journalists or news outlets have shared the reports; because of staffers' affiliation with AP, doing so could lend credence to reports that may well be incorrect.
The guidelines also state that staffers should "steer clear of retweeting rumors and hearsay. They can, however, feel free to reply to such tweets in order to seek further information, as long as they're careful to avoid repeating the questionable reports." The AP generally maintains strict rules for staffers, who are asked to refrain from posting political affiliations or expressing opinions on controversial topics. Notably not addressed is the matter of account security: the AP's greatest social media problem so far came not from a rogue employee but from a hacked Twitter account.
Other companies, meanwhile, have run into their own set of issues. Microsoft faced an outcry after one of its employees began angrily posting about Xbox rumors, leading to his departure. Likewise, Reuters fired social media editor Matthew Keys after he tweeted prolifically — and sometimes incorrectly — during the Boston bombings; Keys has also been charged with participating in an Anonymous hacking operation. As the common Twitter saying goes, retweets may not equal endorsements, but the intent of a post can't always be separated from its effect. "Many people who see your tweets and retweets will never look at your Twitter bio," the AP cautions.
Update: The AP has said that the update was not meant to be in response to the bombings. "We routinely update our guidance to staff on such matters, and this particular update has been in the works for a while."