The Associated Press risks its reputation when it plays fast and loose with facts on Twitter

The AP implemented a policy for addressing mistakes in 2016, but it has more work to do

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

If you’re looking for accurate and unbiased news, there are few organizations the American people trust as much as The Associated Press. In the most recent iteration of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s annual Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy, 45 percent of Americans rated the news cooperative as either “not biased at all” or “not very biased.” To put that in perspective, The New York Times, CNN, and Fox News scored just 28 percent, 23 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.

If you follow the AP on Twitter, however, you’ve probably noticed that it deletes a lot of tweets, announcing each one as it goes along.

Oftentimes, the AP deletes tweets because of small mistakes that most social media users can relate to. Maybe it attached the wrong link or photo to the tweet, misspelled a word, vaguely worded some news, or needed to update the information in a now-out-of-date tweet.

The AP's delection policy emerged as the result of a tweet written during the 2016 presidential campaign, and it’s actually an example of good journalism.

On August 23, 2016, the AP posted a tweet alleging that “more than half” of the people then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with during her time as secretary of state were Clinton Foundation donors. What the tweet didn’t say was that the number addressed only her meetings with people outside of government. When accounting for the actual entirety of her meetings, the percent of those held with donors was less than 5. Then-AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll appeared on the August 28 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources to defend the tweet. While she called it “sloppy,” she pointed out that the actual news article that went along with the tweet was accurate and straightforward.

Unfortunately, people rarely actually click through to articles, meaning that a misleading headline or tweet is likely to lead to a misinformed public. Yet there’s no universally accepted approach journalists and news organizations take when correcting out-of-date or incorrect tweets, and that has contributed to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Prior to the tweet about Clinton, the AP left the decisions about updates and deletions on Twitter to individual news managers. But on September 8, 2016, AP Vice President of Standards John Daniszewski published a blog post announcing that the organization had deleted the inaccurate tweet and would be implementing a new policy going forward:

In the earlier days of Twitter, there had been a belief that removing tweets was akin to retroactively editing a conversation; it wasn’t transparent. Additionally, tweets were seen more as providing paths to in-depth content and less as content in themselves that would remain in the public discussion for an extended period. Industry thinking on this topic has been changing. And the controversy over the AP tweet has led us to an extensive reflection on this evolution.

Under the revisions now in effect, whenever AP deletes content from Twitter, AP will send out a separate tweet giving the reason for the removal, which provides clarity to the public. In most cases, AP will then transmit a replacement tweet.

By this time, however, whatever damage that tweet would cause had already been done: The Trump campaign helped spread the unfounded claim that Clinton engaged in “pay-to-play” politics, and the misleading tweet helped make this case.

Nonetheless, the new AP policy of deleting incorrect or misleading tweets and posting an update explaining why is exactly the type of transparency we should expect from news organizations.

While the new Twitter policy was a big win for transparency, it highlighted just how bad the AP actually is on the social network.

If its goal is to present stories on Twitter in a fair, factual, nonpartisan manner, the AP has repeatedly failed to meet this standard.

When it comes to value-neutral language, the organization seems to struggle, sometimes gravitating toward the more offensive of all possible options. In September 2018, when a U.S. Border Patrol agent was arrested for the murder of four women in Texas, the AP reported the news on Twitter, referring to the victims as “prostitutes,” a disrespectful move that some viewed as an attempt to dehumanize them. AP deleted the tweet.

On October 21, the AP shared a photo gallery of asylum seekers traveling through Mexico, comparing them to a “ragtag army of the poor.” The tweet was roundly criticized for its biased language. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists condemned the tweet, saying its language “invalidates the plight of these migrants.” The following day, the AP deleted the tweet.

Just over a week later, the organization's AP Politics account earned the wrath of an exasperated many on Twitter when it echoed Trump’s lie that the United States is the only country in the world with birthright citizenship. The AP eventually deleted that tweet as well, and that’s for the best, but the overall goal should be to avoid making mistakes in the first place, and it’s becoming difficult to gauge how much effort it’s putting into ensuring such accuracy:

Sloppiness and a conservative slant have remained staples of the AP’s tweets. For instance, while covering Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her and Kavanaugh’s response to Congress, the AP described Blasey Ford as “quiet” and called Kavanaugh “fiery.” In truth, Kavanaugh came off as utterly unhinged during his response to Ford’s testimony as he alternated between anger and tears while discussing conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton. To call him “fiery” is about the most generous interpretation of his rant possible, and “quiet” tragically downplays Blasey Ford’s stoicism.

The recent government shutdown also resulted in a number of misleading AP tweets. On January 19, the AP shared news that Trump was prepared to include temporary protection for the young immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in exchange for border wall funding, not noting that this offer was simply giving back something he had taken away in the first place.

And when the U.S. Senate voted down two proposals to reopen the government -- one bill by Democrats and one by Republicans -- the AP reported that “Senate Democrats” blocked it. In reality, not only did the Republican bill fail because senators from both parties voted against it, but the Democratic bill actually received more votes, with six Republicans voting for it. But the AP tweet reads as if the blame for the then-ongoing shutdown should be placed on Democrats.

These examples just scratch the surface of the AP’s Twitter failures, which also include a flawed “fact check” about who was responsible for the government shutdown, the deletion of a tweet because it correctly stated that George H.W. Bush lost his re-election campaign, and a deleted tweet about Trump referring to immigrants as “animals” -- a bow to conservatives claiming that he was clearly referring to gang members.

If the AP wants to remain a respected source of news, it needs to double down on the commitment outlined in the 2016 policy change, and maybe even expand it.

“Prior to this guideline change, whether to delete or update tweets had been left to AP news managers to decide on a case-by-case basis,” wrote Daniszewski in 2016. “The new guidance is mandatory, subjecting tweets to the same internal review and response process as other AP content.”

It’s one thing to subject tweets to a review and response process after they’ve been published, but the number of factual flubs and poorly worded messages suggests that the AP would benefit from additional standards to catch these mistakes before they go out into the world. The 2016 policy change is a good, transparent way to own up to mistakes. Moving forward, let’s all hope those mistakes become less frequent.