Think like a human, report like a journalist: How to handle breaking news on social media

Managing Facebook communities can be a bit of a conundrum for newsrooms. On one hand, a strong Facebook community built around your brand’s page can drive huge audiences to your website.

On the other hand, it can be quite hard to ‘control’ the crowd – if, indeed, that’s how journalists see their role. Despite being perhaps the hardest social network on which to be anonymous, I suspect we’re all familiar with tales of seemingly innocuous stories prompting comments which veer towards the racist very quickly.

This obviously runs the risk of harming your brand, but not publishing any story which could be skewed by someone to have a go at immigration would probably render a page rather empty.

Then there are court cases which you wouldn’t open for comment on your site, or breaking news stories where people are quick to pass judgement without knowing the facts.

Moderating every Facebook comment thread could quickly become a full-time job, and the challenge for publishers is to ensure we’re getting value for money from time invested on Facebook.

It could be easy to dismiss this as the curse of social media in a world where everyone can be a publisher, and conclude there’s nothing we can do about it.

But there is, and it’s really quite simple – if you treat Facebook like a pub. We all know the feeling of satisfaction journalists get when they hear someone talking about a story they’ve written (assuming it’s not wrapped up in a threat or overt criticism), or reading the newspaper they work for.

Facebook is simply a digital pub – a place where lots of people can ‘meet’ and discuss things which might interest them. For publishers, Facebook is like getting permission to overtly push the conversations being had in pubs towards the stuff we’ve written about.

The tone of conversations in pubs are determined by the people engaging in them. Most Facebook threads which take a ‘racist’ tone are corrected by people further down the thread. But as journalists taking up the privilege of being able to share with huge audiences for free, we have a duty to ensure that we’re setting the right tone around our content.

Take this example from the Daily Post in North Wales at the weekend:


It was a live news story, but details were sketchy. The police were appealing for people to stay away, but not giving much information out.

The Daily Post had a right – I would argue duty – to report what information it had and to try and keep people informed.

But knowing that much speculation could follow in the comments thread about what was happening, the Daily Post took steps to influence the tone of the conversation by urging people to be careful about what they posted, because not all the facts were known.

It worked to an extent too. Some criticised the Post for publishing before all the facts were known, but far more said the Post was doing what they’d expect the Post to do: Report news live. And there were plenty of people around to shout down those who did speculate about what was going on.

The lesson here for journalists is that Facebook doesn’t have to be seen as some sort of Wild West of journalism. What makes our brands stand apart from everyone else on Facebook is the expectation that we’ll do the right thing, and report the right information.

By being aware of how the conversation could go under the link, the Post took steps to influence the conversation, just as you might down the pub when talking to friends.

Essentially, the Post shared one of the core values of journalism: Sharing what you know and not speculating about what you don’t know and urged others, empowered with the ability to publish themselves, to do follow suit.

And many did. There are those who like to think the rise of digital has resulted in the decline of journalistic standards. If we apply our basic standards, and share them with others, then far from seeing those standards decline, we see them thrive and become cherished by audiences.

Think like a human, report like a journalist. Hardly a new idea, but as relevant as ever.


4 thoughts on “Think like a human, report like a journalist: How to handle breaking news on social media

  1. Interesting example on the Liverpool Echo FB page a few weeks ago. Echo reports death of uni fresher after night out, many commenters leap to the ‘obvious’ conclusion that it’s drug-related, several criticise the Echo for not specifying the cause of death (!). A week or two later, the post mortem reveals the cause was meningitis.

  2. So, not knowing what was actually going on, they put out the ‘major incident’ line which we all know means anything from a terrorist cell being raided to an unattended hold-all. That’s not responsible journalism. It’s part of the “don’t stop to think if it’s actually news, get it out quick” school of reporting. The media used to have a ban on covering bomb calls unless they were genuine. Now they help stoke up groundless hysteria.

    1. There are a number of things we don’t know – one of which is the level of information the police were putting out or the guidance they were giving. As journalists we have a choice – we either do our best to report the news properly as it is happening with the information we have, or sit and wait and collate all the information. The latter option makes us irrelevant to modern audiences, so therefore isn’t really an option at all.

      I think doing everything it can to ensure people interact with the information they do have was a wise move others should follow.

  3. The difference nowadays is that we’re not the controllers of information – we’re out there alongside every other local news outlet, from broadcasters to anyone with a social media account. I think that changes our role. Wait for the full story and we may as well not bother at all. Surely it’s better to break known facts as we gather them, to establish ourselves as a credible, reliable teller of the story? I agree with your point about bomb calls, Phil, but for 99 per cent of stories those considerations aren’t an issue.

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