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Twitter is ubiquitous to reporters, editors and public-relations managers these days with most expected to use this social media tool to spread the word of their work and their employer’s brand.

But for a medium that’s been around since 2006, many journalists and those in related professions still act surprised when one of their tweets goes horribly, grotesquely wrong. Tweets that are borderline sexist, racist or offensive in a variety of ways are still going viral with alarming regularity. It makes one ask: Why are people who claim to be professional writers and communicators still misusing Twitter and what, if anything, can be done about it?

In fact, one might argue that even an essay on the digital ethics of tweeting is rather 2006. But if you Google “media Twitter mistakes,” you’ll find multiple news stories about reporters and PR gurus losing their jobs and clients after they abused the 140 characters Twitter allotted them. That’s a lot of poor judgment in such a small space.

A February New York Times magazine article about the psychological effects of a poorly worded tweet should serve as a reminder to everyone who works with words for a living – words in this modern era have the power of sticks and stones. And they will hurt you.

In Jon Ronson’s piece, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” he takes a hard look at how “Twitter shaming” gives those who author these tweets long-term damage, whether it is through documentable syndromes such as post-traumatic stress disorder or just plain old shame.

Ronson, a self-professed Twitter shamer, goes out and finds people whose lives have been negatively impacted by their social media posts. One was Justine Sacco, a public-relations manager whose December 2013 tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” cost Sacco her job. It also turned her into a media hermit. There also are worries that she and those like her may never know privacy again given the public nature of their mistake.

Chances are if you ask reporters if they’ve posted something that could be called questionable or downright stupid on social media – Twitter, specifically – you’ll get a hair-raising tale of the moment they wrote something they regretted.

The story probably would go something like this: There was a news story that they were either working on or caught their eye. Their wicked sense of humor kicked in, and they thought of a comment that made them snicker internally. So, 140 characters later, they decided to share their cleverness with the world.

The reaction was likely swift. Apologies followed. Job security was questioned. Who knew that such a seemingly innocuous thing as riffing off of a news story could offend, upset, irritate and downright annoy so many people in such a short amount of time?

Newsroom and social media policies reflect the sentiment that employers and organizations of all sizes are aware of the risks of irresponsible tweets. These policies tend to read the same: Think about your audience. Ask yourself whether you’d want your boss, your co-workers, even your Mom to read that tweet. And, if you’re in doubt, come ask.

Because editors don’t critique what gets tweeted most of the time, there is little to no oversight on what a reporter writes there. And with most newsrooms squeezed for budget and staffing, few would have the personnel necessary to do that. Having someone monitor every tweet would simply not make sense in a lot of instances. So an essential part of the news-writing process has been lost; there is no gatekeeper between the reporter and his or her audience.

It’s only after the tweet has gone live and people start to comment that things get real. The reaction can happen immediately or it might take a day or two. But once someone has captured a screenshot of the offending tweet, your goose – for all intents and purposes – is well and truly cooked.

I know that I cringe when I see one of my fellow journalists getting piled on after tweeting something inappropriate. That happened a year ago to a Detroit Free Press reporter who tweeted about a chemical spill that left thousands of West Virginians trying to make do without tap water. She wrote: “West Virginia has its tainted water problem under ctrl. Now, it can work on incest.”

Yikes. Probably should have told that one to your significant other and no one else. Incest jokes tend to have a limited audience in general. And she was tweeting as a representative of her newspaper. To have dozens, if not hundreds of people sending you their responses on Twitter in a flash, and they’re all hating you…It can’t feel good.

This reporter did not lose her job, and a quick look at her Twitter feed a year later shows that she still has a fine sense of humor about her. Her tweets when viewed through the lens of “What did she learn?” definitely have a milder feel to them in the months that followed the January 2014 incident. I’m guessing she understood that Twitter, although fun and frivolous in some instances, was more than she ever imagined.

So what’s the takeaway of Twitter and these moments? It’s that social media platforms are powerful beyond what their creators or their users initially imagined. It can change people’s lives – and that’s no joke. Granted, if you lose your job because you’ve tweeted something so offensive that it upsets legions of readers, you know that already. But it bears repeating: Social media use isn’t just about sharing kitten pictures or criticizing Oscar fashion any more.

Edward Cardenas is a communicator who has worked on both sides of the notebook throughout Metro Detroit. Cardenas was a reporter for The Detroit News when I met him; he left for a stint as communications director for Congresswoman Candice Miller and press secretary for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

He returned to the writing side of journalism to help launch the hyper-local Patch network in Michigan. Cardenas then went high tech when he joined WWJ Newsradio 950 and CBS Detroit in 2014, where he covers technology, development and new-economy stories. In my opinion, he’s pretty much a Twitter expert; using his posts to both boost his stories and the people in them.

“I have found that the best way to utilize Twitter and to build my reputation is to share newsworthy stories, photos and news updates on the social networking site that would be of interest to my followers,” Cardenas said. “Because I am a reporter, I rarely interject my personal opinion of links I share and leave it up to my followers to develop their own opinions about a topic.”

I can understand the desire to keep your own opinions and personality out of your Twitter feed. I remember my own Twitter meltdown with a sense of horror. I was sending out tweets for one of my freelance clients during the “Car Prom,” or charity preview for the North American International Auto Show.

While retweeting pictures of lovely gowns and car models, a random stranger decided to engage me in a Twitter chat. It seemed innocent enough at first, and I enjoyed the banter as I worked. It quickly turned problematic when he started adding references to pornography and drawing in adult-film stars to our conversation. I backed out quickly, realizing that my employer would be mortified to have the company’s name associated with any film star, let alone Jenna Jameson or the like.

No one ever brought up those tweets, and I consider myself lucky for avoiding any spotlight either within my office or across the Internet. I know of another friend whose son accidentally tweeted his “Angry Birds” score on his employer’s Twitter feed – and the tweet ended up making Jim Romenesko’s well-read media blog. He recalled the story to me with a small smile on his lips, but we both agreed that is not the way you want to end up in any blog post.

Perhaps some reporters feel hampered by strict Twitter policies. Maybe they think that adding, “tweets are my own opinion” to their Twitter descriptions will cover their bases in case something blows up when they don’t expect it. The bottom line is if you call yourself a professional writer, you must take responsibility for every word that you write. There are no exceptions. Twitter, like everything else, will follow you to your virtual grave. And don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your mother, your editor or your potential audience to read.

Karen Dybis

Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, Corp! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.

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