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Why journalists should break news on Twitter

The world of journalism and Twitter is buzzing following Sky News’s new policy on Twitter and the BBC’s new guidance on breaking news.

Both organisations have told their journalists not to break news on Twitter first.

In a post on the BBC’s Editors blog, social media editor Chris Hamilton acknowledged the value of Twitter but concluded:

We’ve been clear that our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.

Instead he points out that BBC journalists are able to inform the newsroom and tweet simultaneously:

We’re fortunate to have a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts.

On his Twitter stream, Chris sought to clarify the guidance to BBC News journalists:

It’s about the best way of breaking news on all our platforms – social networks, our own website, TV, radio.

— Chris Hamilton (@chrishams) February 8, 2012

Essential point is we have system that allows journalists to file and tweet at the same time.

— Chris Hamilton (@chrishams) February 8, 2012

The tensions over Twitter and breaking news result from the collision of two worlds – when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all.

The reasons for wanting to control the flow of news are understandable. Historically, news organisations have been the gate-keepers, deciding what is news, how to report it and when and how to distribute it.

In a nuanced post, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones acknowledges that “We are all feeling our way forward through the fog of this new media landscape.” He concludes:

Some would like to turn the clock back to a simpler time, when all power resided in the newsdesk, only star reporters got a byline, and sharing information with outsiders before the presses rolled or the bulletin began was a sacking offence.

But it is almost certainly too late for that.

The guidance for journalists not to break news on Twitter is based on a flawed understanding of today’s media ecosystem. It assumes that journalists still have a monopoly on breaking the news.

Repeatedly, the first news of a natural disaster or other major news story have emerged first on Twitter.  Nicola Bruno wrote an excellent paper (PDF) for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on the emergence of Twitter as a breaking news network.

Understandably, a journalist tweeting a breaking news event is likely to have greater impact. This is what happened when the New York Times’ Brian Stelter retweeted a message from Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the death of Bin Laden.

So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.

— Keith Urbahn (@keithurbahn) May 2, 2011

But to advise journalists not to break news on Twitter is anachronistic. It ignores the value that a journalist and their parent organisation can gain by signalling that they are across a major development.

People who’ve heard that something has happened may wonder why a journalist with BBC or Sky News hasn’t tweeted it yet.

Moreover, tweeting the news can add to their credibility as a trusted news source, especially if Twitter is awash with rumour and speculation.  A message from a journalist at the BBC or Sky News is likely to be considered as a trusted source, potentially drive audiences to the website or broadcast outlets.

This is a valuable service to their audiences, even those not on Twitter. The value of Twitter is as a distributed network,where the reach of a message can grow exponentially with every retweet.

Arguably, there is an imperative for journalists to break news on Twitter to fulfil the role as a trusted and reliable source of accurate information.

(Disclosure: I worked for the BBC for 16 years and have worked with both Chris and Rory).

This post was updated to include Chris Hamilton’s comments on the BBC technology for filing text.


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