Every time a major news organisation releases its social media guidelines for staff the debate about journalist conduct on social networks goes ballistic. The is now the case on the back of the Associated Press updating its social media guidelines (PDF) last week.

Most commentators are critical of the updated policy, in particular the section that warns AP staff of the dangers of retweeting and how that may be seen as endorsing a particular viewpoint. The particular paragraph is this one:

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. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.

If you’re interested in the debate Mathew Ingram’s piece over at Gigaom is a good place to start, but the one that struck me the most was Jeff Sonderman’s Poynter piece. In that Sonderman suggested a possible solution to the problem of perceived bias in journo tweets: the neutral tweet, or NT. The idea is that in place of RT journalists use NT to signify a neutral (re)tweet.

It’s a terrible idea.

The less important reason it’s a bad idea is that it would just confuse things. We’ve already got RTs, PRTs and MTs and now you want to add another? It’s just stupid.

The real reason it’s a bad idea is that it’s a mechanical solution to an issue which is both simple and complex at the same time. On the one hand any journalist worth their salt will be aware of how their words are perceived in public and would, presumably, exercise caution in any case. So there would be no need for something as silly as a neutral tweet convention.

The problem is that not everyone exercises this type of caution and many journalists need to be reminded that these are, ultimately, public platforms that reflect on both the individual and the publication they work for. Insisting that staffers retweet using something like NT is not a solution to this. Simply pre-pending a retweet with a NT hardly guarantees impartiality. If anything it makes a mockery of the process by allowing journalists to retweet just about any drivel while all the time pretending they’re impartial.

It’s a tricky world this social media thing, particularly  for journalists who are very often more high profile than they realise. Readers see our names every day in the paper and impart some level of importance to us (at least we hope so) even if we’re the most junior reporter in our newsrooms.

It’s also complex because many journalists use their Twitter accounts to do their jobs: to promote their stories, share breaking news and live-tweet events. They do those as journalists fully aware that they’re in the public eye. But then they also use them for personal interactions, for sharing news with friends and family, and there’s no off-duty switch for when they’re out of the office and socialising. As a result they’re always on show and it’s something that both journalists and news organisations are struggling to make sense of.

Now my head hurts. Any thoughts?