Watch What You Tweet, Post or Blog ... It Just May End Up in an AP Story

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is no stranger to controversy.

Last month, when the 71-year-old Republican received a new heart at a Northern Virginia hospital, reporters quickly shared the story. Moments later, the social media spheres quickly erupted in a heated debate on the ethics of Cheney's new heart.

Tweets and Facebook posts linked to news stories about Cheney's heart transplant. Many of these social media updates included political rants and questions about who gets organ donations.

As is the case with major news stories like this, the Associated Press was among the first news outlets to break the story.

The AP is a news cooperative that feeds news stories, photos, and videos to thousands of daily newspapers as well as radio, television, and online customers.

The initial AP story by Kasie Hunt included a tweet by Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist at Scripps Health in California: "The ethical issues are not that he had a transplant, but who didn't?”

Confirming sources

It wasn't the content in Dr. Topol's tweet that surprised me but rather that the AP quoted a social media channel with no indication of other reporting.

How did the reporter know that Dr. Topol was indeed the source of that comment?

Twitter offers verification for celebrities and public figures, but the AP even acknowledges that hacking is rampant.

The doctor’s response

I reached out to Dr. Topol last week via Twitter and he tweeted back, “@jonathan_rhudy @ap Never got any call or contact for a quote; they just went with a Tweet!"

Fascinating.

I also contacted Hunt, the AP reporter, for her take. She responded quickly via email and wrote, “That material came from our medical writer, Marilynn Marchione, who is cited as a contributor at the bottom of the story.”

Thus far, Marchione hasn’t responded to two emails and a personal tweet.

AP’s Social Media Guidelines

Like many news organizations, the AP has a detailed Social Media Guidelines document. In fact, the news cooperative revised it last in January 2012. 

The eight-page document covers everything from friending to retweeting and sourcing.

In its guidelines, the news organization acknowledges that sources found via social networks can be difficult to verify.

In fact, the AP encourages its employees to call to confirm the identity of the source as if they were calling the source on the phone. 

From Dr. Topol's standpoint, this didn't happen. Perhaps the AP’s Marchione or a fact checker called the PR department at Scripps Health where Topol practices but according to the doctor no one contacted him.

Three lessons for communicators

1. Post with care.

Despite the social media reporting guidelines and policies put in place by news organizations, anything you post, tweet or blog has the possibility of being quoted, republished or repurposed without a call or email for you to confirm or clarify details. 

2.Connect and follow your media contacts.

Understand how key reporters covering your business or organization use social media. Engage with them online, but also regularly reach out to them via phone, email and in-person to make a connection. This will increase the likelihood they  will pick up the phone when they are on a deadline to confirm a Tweet or post or to ask for a fresh quote. 

3. Monitor and respond.

If you work for a large organization, monitor the internal experts to determine who is effectively using social media. Review your organization's own social media policy.

Next week, I'll share how several Richmond-area journalists use social media for news gathering and how you can be a better communicator as a result.

Jonathan Rhudy loves Twitter. It reminds him of headline writing in journalism school.