Badly broken: Watch what you Tweet

When you’re working in journalism, you naturally want to spread your message. And when you’re looking to spread your message, you’re likely to look to social media. And when you use social media, you try to gain attention – up to a point. And that’s where the trouble starts.

Journalism is often serious business about serious topics, topics that don’t lend themselves to cute Tweets that try to capitalize on humor or trending stories. Failure to recognize that can land even experienced journalists in predicaments.

A 2013 Philadelphia case illustrates a classic case of Twitter gone bad. As reported by Philly.com’s Will Bunch, an anchor for a Fox station (and apparently a fan of the series Breaking Bad, which was then nearing its conclusion) sought to create buzz for a breaking story on that night’s newscast. The story involved a mass shooting in Philadelphia in which six people were shot – not the most light-hearted of topics. So it wasn’t especially well-received when she posted the following Tweet:

(Yes, this Tweet still exists online – it hasn’t been deleted, nearly two years later.)

After some caustic criticism – not surprising, in a city where football fans once booed Santa Claus – the anchor clarified her statement in a garbled and poorly-written Tweet, saying that she was simply trying to draw a contrast between the fictional drama on television and the real-life stories on the streets of Philadelphia:

Poking fun at students who apply for financial aid - an uncool move from... the U.S. Department of Education.

Poking fun at students who apply for financial aid – an uncool move from… the U.S. Department of Education.

In any case, the story raised questions about how far is too far when using current trends to promote news, as well as the ethics and general taste of injecting light commentary into genuine tragedy. Most viewers deemed the post insensitive. And if you think it’s bad when a news media representative makes a blunder like that, think of the embarrassment when a Bad Tweet comes from the federal government. Last summer, the official account of Federal Student Aid, the financial aid arm of the United States Department of Education, bizarrely misused a meme (“Help me. I’m poor.”) in a post from the official @FAFSA Twitter handle. In effect, the Tweet seemed to insult the vast numbers (according to government estimates, more than 80 percent of college students) who receive financial aid in some form. And – surprise, surprise – the DOE issued an apology the next day.

Blunders like these get filed away under the dreaded Bad Tweet category. It’s a message of caution to converged communicators: Even professionals can get make embarrassing missteps in the Twittersphere.

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