In a post earlier this month, I noted that a reader pointed to what the reader called "hashtag advocacy" in a tweet on Religion News Service's institutional account:
Another reader objected to that characterization of RNS' tweet, replying to @GetReligion:
Via @GetReligion, I responded to the reader, Melissa Steffan, a Web developer and writer:
I certainly appreciate Steffan engaging with GetReligion. We love these kind of discussions, which are important to our profession of journalism.
She claims that "it's not 'advocacy' when you use a popular hashtag" and notes that "social media markets use hashtags not necessarily to support a cause, but to get a tweet in front of more viewers."
But journalists are a different animal, or should be.
That's why journalists must be careful with the hashtags that they choose — and make sure not to convey any hint of bias.
The Poynter.org article to which I pointed Steffan explains the ethical dilemma that journalists face:
In that article from a few months ago, journalist Shadi Rahimi writes:
(I)t does appear now more than ever that people and the media are becoming more selective about how and when to use hashtags — meaning sometimes not at all. At the same time, when we do use hashtags for certain stories, we’re finding ourselves grappling with the ethical implications of using community-generated classifications to enter existing conversations.
Later in the piece, she elaborates:
All that said, there are certain hashtags that deliver an ethical dilemma. We encountered this most recently when covering the Baltimore unrest with our use of both #BaltimoreUprising and #BaltimoreRiots.
We had sent a team to report from the ground in Baltimore using mobile phones. At first, there wasn’t a distinctive hashtag for the protests beyond #FreddieGray. We simply used that and #Baltimore.
But as unrest erupted the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, #BaltimoreUprising began to trend. So we used it for our tweets and Facebook posts to join the conversation. As the unrest continued, the tone online changed: #BaltimoreRiots swung upward. We used both hashtags when there was space. When there wasn’t, #BaltimoreRiots. As with any other hashtag of an editorial nature, we were careful to place it at the end of tweets, or to use it in context when reporting online conversation. But that distinction was lost on some, understandably so. Most don’t read deeply into tweet structure.
Using #BaltimoreProtests, for example, would have been more “journalistically sound,” as Whiteside reflected later. But that wasn’t trending or generated by users. Using either “uprising” or “riots” as a media organization meant we appeared to be aligning ourselves with a viewpoint. That was a debate we had among the social media team just before tweeting. A few others in the office raised that point amid the height of our reporting. We defended our decision by explaining that we were entering existing conversation responsibly, the tone of which had not been set by us.
But that was not the end of the debate. I’ve since returned to those in our office who expressed concern to hear more about what they would have done. Perhaps we will do it differently when presented with the same dilemma in the future. Perhaps we won’t. The rules and troubles of journalism are compounded in the breaking platform of social media. Reporters and editors have always battled to perfect the language to describe an event accurately and fairly. What is an “uprising”? What is a “riot”? Who determines that? How and why did we in U.S. media choose to call the events in the Arab world in 2011 an “uprising” or a “revolution”? Do we use those same determinations (if any) closer to home? Why not?
“In the past, the goal on Twitter was to incorporate hashtags into your copy to save space and streamline. But as time went on, you wondered, ‘Am I editorializing by doing this?’ Do we sound like activists? Placement matters. Most of the time, we aim editorially to go down the center. #CallMeCaitlyn can be thought of as an opinion. So can #JusticeforFreddieGray. Most of the time, we want to let the content speak for itself,” Dermody says.
Amid the Baltimore unrest, I’d pushed one of our reporters to clarify whether an event he was at could be described as a “protest” or “rally” or “community gathering” or “group of people,” etc., before I tweeted on his behalf. But when it comes to hashtags, the agenda had already been set by users. As media, it’s up to us to decide how and whether to use them.
As the Poynter piece reflected, journalists' use of hashtags isn't a simple matter. And the "hashtag advocacy" question is a legitimate one, even if it's difficult to tell — in the specific RNS tweet highlighted — if RNS was advocating was advocating or simply trying to reach more readers.
Overall, RNS' Twitter feed is an uneven mix of news and opinion, straightforward journalism and snarky editorializing — all of which make it difficult to know exactly how to interpret any given tweet. Personally, I'd love to see RNS do a better job of differentiating between news and opinion — for the sake of its journalistic reputation.