Why should journalists break news on Twitter?

Sky News and the BBC hit the social media headlines this week when it emerged that both were telling journalists not to break news on Twitter.

Or were they?

In the case of the BBC, social media editor Chris Hamilton seems quite clear: They’re not banning reporters from breaking news on Twitter, they’re simply reminding them that their priority should be to inform the newsroom of a breaking news story before they tweet it – if it isn’t possible to do the two at the same time (and BBC technology means it normally is possible to do that).

Still, Hamilton quite clear statement didn’t stop the Guardian running the story under the headline ‘Don’t break stories on Twitter, BBC journalists told‘ – and failed to change it even with Hamiltons’ comment beneath. Still, never let the facts and all that…

Over at Sky News, new guidance told staff not to retweet sources other than Sky News accounts, to make sure that the newsdesk didn’t find out information on breaking news stories via a journalist’s Twitter account and to stick to their own beat, and only report on their own stories.

Twitter was up in arms. How dare big organisations try and stifle the flow of information from reporters to the public.

And then came the inevitable Storify.

One of the more ridiculous examples was Jonathan Haynes of the Guardian who claimed that while ‘well meaning’, such new rules would result in journalists at the Beeb and Sky News becoming little more than ‘RSS feeds’ on Twitter.

But in the typical Twitter haste to try and paint a media organisation or two as being out of touch, many people are missing the point. Neither organisation is saying ‘don’t tweet breaking news’ – indeed, Sky News says it’s fine if you’re covering a live event – they are just making sure reporters keep their desks informed of a breaking news story.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Journalists like to make money for their work. For that to happen, they need to have an employer prepared to pay them. That employer has the right to expect that when the paid reporter finds a breaking news story, they give the organisation the chance to decide how best to handle the story.

I’ve sat in newsrooms when news editors or sports editors have found out about a breaking news story via a reporter’s Twitter account. The reporter hadn’t thought to contact the news/sports desk. 140 characters, job done appeared to be the school of thought. And yet, in both the cases I can think of, it would have taken maybe a minute to ring  the desk, file a couple of pars, get it online and tweet the breaking news and the link.

Nobody’s saying don’t use Twitter, nobody’s saying don’t interact on Twitter – just to make sure that the most can be made out of the stories being generated.

Sky News, in particular, came in for criticism for banning retweets from non-Sky accounts. I can understand part of the logic here, but don’t agree with it. It doesn’t do any harm for journalists to stop and think about what they retweet – you’re a journalist, it’s not unreasonable for people to expect you share only information you believe to be true – but the idea that you only retweet your own organisation’s work is a dangerous one.

But is anyone in the regional press really surprised to see a broadcaster ignoring sources to stories?

Paul Bradshaw makes a good argument about the journalist’s role being about content and curation on Twitter – and I agree. He also points out live interviews would be impossible if every piece of information was verified first. I agree with that too. But I also think many journalists often retweet too quickly. Stopping for a moment never hurts.

However, for as long as organisations are paying journalists to work for them – and use Twitter as part of their work – it’s not unreasonable that they seek to protect their interests.

5 comments

  1. It is nonetheless true that even after letting the desk know – a tweet from a journalist can reach their own followers faster than the BBC outlet can get it on air (as a former BBC R5 liver I know that to be the case – in the time it takes to tell the live studio a reporter wants to go on air or the newroom to write up two sentences for the presenter to read, the reporter with the news can tweet their following with instant effect.
    This surely is not wrong as it drives that persons network onto the website or to turn on the radio to find out more.

    1. There’s no guarantee that the tweet to the reporter’s network will lead to a push to the website they work for, or the network – unless, of course, they make sure they say so in that Tweet. But the point of the post was to say that there’s nothing wrong with employers saying a reporter’s priority is to inform the newsdesk first,

  2. The words ‘phone the newsdesk’ were drummed into my ears so many times they became like a mantra that stayed with me throughout my career in journalism. I think the journo’s first priority must always be to let the desk know what’s happening – then by all means alert the rest of the world through Twitter and whatever.
    Apart from anything else – telling Twitter first might also result in tipping off rival media – and that would definitely bring down the newsdesk’s wrath – and rightly so.

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