Tweets in stories: No big deal

The complainant, Lawrence Wilson, thought reproducing the graphic image of a tweet from a politician was like providing free political advertising. He thought it made it too easy for someone to follow the politician. Quoting a tweet is accepted practice and when it’s embedded in a story with lots of different views, there is no question of balance. It’s just one more way of sharing information.

COMPLAINT

You object to the practice of reproducing tweets in the body of news stories. Your specific complaint involved a budget story published on CBCNews.ca entitled Federal Budget 2016: Liberals push deficit to spend big on families, cities”. You noted that there were two tweets embedded in this story and that they were both posted by Conservative politicians. You characterized the tweets as “political attack ads” and stated that “CBC should not be a source of free political advertisements for one political party. It should not give any reason to promote Canadians to ‘Follow’ one political party or politician over others.”

You are concerned because within a given tweet there is a button which enables a reader to click and elect to follow the author of that particular account. You feel this provides an unfair advantage to the politician or party in question as it provides an opportunity to gain followers. You noted that since tweets are only 140 characters they can simply be turned into quotes within the story, and there is no reason to reproduce the Twitter format:

Twitter is an extremely effective method of getting a message to the public. Putting Twitter feeds into a CBC article should be considered a conflict of interest of balanced reporting. This is especially so when the Twitter feeds are connected to only one political party.... While the Twitter feed does not look like an attack ad, it still is an attack.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The senior producer of Politics, Chris Carter, responded to your concerns. He explained the budget story you cited was first published shortly after 4:00 p.m. on budget day, just as the budget was being released. He added that the story was updated throughout the afternoon and evening to provide more reaction and details of the budget as more information became available. He told you why one of the tweets you cited, from acting Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose was used:

We posted tweets from Ambrose early on because they gave the Opposition’s overarching reaction and because they added a visual element, and because they showed readers how the Opposition chose to convey its own message on the budget. As we updated the story and had more reaction to use, we changed the position and number of the tweets and in the end left the two in that you see now because they provided useful reaction, in our view.

He agreed that there were no tweets from other political parties, but pointed out that the article included video clips from Finance Minister Bill Morneau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair, as well as Ms. Ambrose. Visitors to the CBC site could also access a live feed of the CBC News budget special and the News Network program Power & Politics. He added that balance was further provided by many other stories that were published in the course of budget day, which provided a range of views and perspectives, as well as highlights of the government’s budget.

He also addressed your concern about the reproduction of the actual tweets, which includes the “follow” button.

On the subject of the Follow button, that is a function of the way tweets are presented by Twitter when they are embedded on a web page. The functionality of embedded tweets is familiar to many of our readers, and are not intended to constitute our endorsement or invitation to follow the account. That is a decision that the reader must make on their own, and indeed only happens if the reader chooses to click on the Follow button.

REVIEW

Your concern about fairness and balance is addressed in CBC News’ Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP). This is what it has to say about balance:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The story that you are concerned about was a lengthy omnibus piece on the Liberal government’s first budget, along with a range of reaction and reviews. In addition to the two tweets that concerned you, the article now has video with a graphic explanation of the highlights of the budget, video excerpts from the heads of the NDP and Conservative Party and finance minister Bill Morneau, as well as photographs of Mr. Morneau standing in the House with the applause of his fellow MPs. There are also links to a dozen other articles about the election on the CBCNews.ca website.

The article itself covers highlights as well as reaction. It also has a graphic of two tweets: one from the acting leader of the opposition condemning the budget as a “nightmare scenario for taxpayers” and one from a Conservative MP specifically addressing military spending in the budget. You characterize this as an attack. It is reproduced so citizens like you can form their own judgment about the tone and content. The fact that the two tweets came from one political party, in the context of this long and multi-dimensional overview of the budget, does not violate the need for balance. Any reader would come away with the views and perspectives of the major parties and was provided the opportunity to inform him or herself on a wide range of the budget content and its possible impacts. There is a strong obligation for CBC News to ensure, on a day when the government in power live broadcasts its position, to provide ample opportunity for other voices to be heard, and to give citizens context and interpretation of what it might mean from a variety of sources.

You characterize the tweets as a form of free political advertising. CBC journalistic policy (JSP) does not address that question directly. Its social media policy was last updated before its use became so ubiquitous. However, it does provide an overarching principle which is helpful – and that is that any content included within news and current affairs articles must meet the test of JSP:

We are consistent in our standards, no matter what the platform, in disseminating information. If we would not put the information on air or on our own website, we would not use social media to report that information.

When using social media as an information-gathering tool, we apply the same standards as those for any other source of newsgathering.

You make the point that the tweet could be quoted, rather than reproduced. I agree with Mr. Carter that there is nothing in its reproduction that somehow implies an endorsement of the position. You also mentioned that Twitter is a very effective way to get the message out. Viewed that way, I suppose it could be seen as redundant to replicate the tweets. Social media and its use to get across a message has been a game changer. It has become part of the discourse, and its visual representation one of the ways people take in information, for better or ill. It is the way politicians choose to reach citizens. There is no issue with a balanced news story showing that communication. As Mr. Carter stated in his response, one of the reasons the tweets are reproduced is because they provide an additional visual element to an article. There may have only been one party’s tweets in this article. Over time and a series of articles other politicians are represented. The tweets are embedded in articles that provide a broader context and perspective.

There is no evidence to support your contention that readers will be more inclined to click on the Follow button. And even if that were the case, following means, as you likely know, that if you have a Twitter account of your own, you can now receive the tweets of the person you want to follow. It’s true that means more people might have access directly to Ms. Ambrose’s 140 character thoughts. In a democracy, enabling citizens to be in touch with their politicians might not be a bad thing. There is an element of choice, as Mr. Carter points out, for anyone to click on that button. They also have ample opportunity to do so through their own Twitter accounts. It is not an endorsement, but a production convention that is well understood. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman