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February 08 2012


Sky and BBC leave the field wide open to Twitter competitors

At first glance, Sky’s decision that its journalists should not retweet information that has “not been through the Sky News editorial process” and the BBC’s policy to prioritise filing “written copy into our newsroom as quickly as possible” seem logical.

For Sky it is about maintaining editorial control over all content produced by its staff. For the BBC, it seems to be about making sure that the newsroom, and by extension the wider organisation, takes priority over the individual.

But there are also blind spots in these strategies that they may come to regret.

Our content?

The Sky policy articulates an assumption about ‘content’ that’s worth picking apart.

We accept as journalists that what we produce is our responsibility. When it comes to retweeting, however, it’s not entirely clear what we are doing. Is that news production, in the same way that quoting a source is? Is it newsgathering, in the same way that you might repeat a lead to someone to find out their reaction? Or is it merely distribution?

The answer, as I’ve written before, is that retweeting can be, and often is, all three.

Writing about a similar policy at the Oregonian late last year, Steve Buttry made the point that retweets are not endorsements. Jeff Jarvis argued that they were “quotes”.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that (as I explain below), but I do think it’s illustrative: if Sky News were to prevent journalists from using any quote on air or online where they could not verify its factual basis, then nothing would get broadcast. Live interviews would be impossible.

The Sky policy, then, seems to treat retweets as pure distribution, and – crucially – to treat the tweet in isolation. Not as a quote, but as a story, consisting entirely of someone else’s content, which has not been through Sky editorial processes but which is branded or endorsed as Sky journalism.

There’s a lot to admire in the pride in their journalism that this shows – indeed, I would like to see the same rigour applied to the countless quotes that are printed and broadcast by all media without being compared with any evidence.
But do users really see retweets in the same way? And if they do, will they always do so?

Curation vs creation

There’s a second issue here which is more about hard commercial success. Research suggests that successful users of Twitter tend to combine curation with creation. Preventing journalists from retweeting  leaves them – and their employers – without a vital tool in their storytelling and distribution.

The tension surrounding retweeting can be illustrated in the difference between two broadcast journalists who use Twitter particularly effectively: Sky’s own Neal Mann, and NPR’s Andy Carvin. Andy retweets habitually as a way of seeking further information. Neal, as he explained in this Q&A with one of my classes, feels that he has a responsibility not to retweet information he cannot verify (from 2 mins in).

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. But both combine curation with creation.

Network effects

A third issue that strikes me is how these policies fit uncomfortably alongside the networked ways that news is experienced now.

The BBC policy, for example, appears at first glance to prevent journalists from diving right into the story as it develops online. Although social media editor Chris Hamilton notes that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”, this is coupled with the argument 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.”

I’m not entirely convinced of this line, because there are a number of competing priorities that I want to understand more clearly.

Firstly, it implies that BBC colleagues are not watching each other on Twitter. If not, why not? Sky pioneered the use of Twitter as an internal newswire, and the man responsible, Julian March, is now doing something similar at ITV.

Then there’s that focus on “all our audiences” in opposition to those early adopter Twitter types. If news is “breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update”, being first on Twitter can give you strategic advantages that waiting for the six o’clock – or even typing a report that’s over 140 characters – won’t, for example:

  • Building a buzz (driving people to watch, listen to or search for the fuller story)
  • Establishing authority on Google (which ranks first reports over later ones)
  • Establishing the traditional authority in being known as the first to break the story
  • Making it easier for people on the scene to get in touch (if someone’s just experienced a newsworthy event or heard about it from someone who was, how likely is it that they search Twitter to see who else was there? You want to be the journalist they find and contact)

Everything at the same time

There’s another side to this, which is evidence of news organisations taking a strategic decision that, in a world of information overload, they should stop trying to be the first (an increasingly hard task), and instead seek to be more authoritative. To be able to say, confidently, “Every atom we distribute is confirmed”, or “We held back to do this spectacularly as a team”.

There’s value in that, and a lot to be admired. I’m not saying that these policies are inherently wrong. I don’t know the full thinking that went into them, or the subtleties of their implementation (as Rory Cellan-Jones illustrates in his example, which contrasts with what can actually happen). I don’t think there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do Twitter’. Every decision is a trade off, because so many factors are in play. I just wanted to explore some of those factors here.

As soon as you digitise information you remove the physical limitations that necessitated the traditional distinctions between the editorial processes of newsgathering, production, editing and distribution.

A single tweet can be doing all at the same time. Social media policies need to recognise this, and journalists need to be trained to understand the subtleties too.

February 03 2012


#newsrw – Laura Kuenssberg: ‘If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it’

Who owns your Twitter followers? Do you? Does the company you work for?

That was a key discussion point at the final session of news:rewired – media in motion. The debate centered on how different news organisations set social media standards. Panelists were: Laura Kuenssberg, business editor with ITV News; Neal Mann, digital news editor for Sky News; Katherine Haddon, head of online with English, AFP; and Tom McArthur, UK editor of Breakingnews.com.

The question was raised when Kuenssberg mentioned leaving her former employer, the BBC. Like her current Twitter handle (@ITVLauraK), her previous one referenced the BBC. The following issue arose: Could Kuenssberg take her followers with her or were they the BBC’s?

“Can someone own your followers?” Kuenssberg asked. “Unlike an email or a tape or a written page, you can’t take your followers. It’s their call. … They’re not property in the same way something else would classically be property.”

The debate also turned to the subject of Twitter guidelines. The panel generally agreed that if you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it, a point Laura Kuenssberg introduced.

“If you’re not happy about saying it on air or on a talk show … then really you shouldn’t be putting it on social media,” Mann added.

The same also applies to discussing rumours on social media. Kuenssberg, Mann and McArthur all suggested simply telling readers if something was or was not confirmed by your media organisation.

Haddon explained that employees at AFP aren’t allowed to tweet breaking news – as that is the product the agency sells.

“You can say to people, ‘we’re hearing reports of x, we don’t know what it really means but it sounds like it might be really big and we’re doing everything we can to find out for you’. That’s OK. People can cope with it,” Kuenssberg said.

Sponsored post

LIVE: The debate – Setting social media standards

In a final debate, delegates are encouraged to discuss with a panel of key industry figures the issue of setting social media standards.

With: Laura Kuenssberg, business editor, ITV News; Neal Mann, digital news editor, Sky News; Katherine Haddon, head of online, English, AFP; and Tom McArthur, UK editor, breakingnews.com.


Mann: “Journalists should be the anchors in the rumour storm.”

Previously ITV, BBC, Sky would never report on rumours, but now we report that there are reports of rioting, for example, but when we knock something down and disprove it, we report that too.


Neal Mann is talking about how usage of social media has expanded since 2008. It became obvious that it needed to be used as a news gathering tool, but problems arose as there were no guidelines.

Kuenssberg and Mann both adhere to the policy: “If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t post it to Twitter.”


We’re getting into the last session of today. It’s going to be more of a debate and discussion, so tweet questions to @newsrewired.

The panellists are: Laura Kuenssberg, business editor, ITV News, @ITVLauraKNeal Mann, digital news editor, Sky News, @fieldproducerKatherine Haddon, head of online, English, AFP, @khaddonTom McArthur, UK editor, Breakingnews.com, @TomMcArthur.

Moderated by Kevin Anderson, journalist and digital strategist,@kevglobal.

May 27 2011


#Newsrw: ‘Twitter is Reuters on acid, crack and cocaine’

You can follow all the right people, assemble a range of news sources and say all the right things – but the key point that emerged from the Sorting the Social Media Chaos session was the ability to verify and filter social media sources properly.

“If Reuters is the best newswire, then Twitter is Reuters on acid, crack and cocaine” said Neal Mann.

Mann has been extensively using his Twitter feed as a source for breaking news while working on Sky News’ foreign desk.

He went on to describe Twitter as his patch where he picked out the people who could help him cover fast-moving events.

@fieldproducer speaking at #newsrw by JosephStash

Moderator Suw Charman-Anderson identified the need to put social media sources in context, and Mann described his approach as “casting a net across Twitter” to find interesting bloggers, accurate information and journalists on the ground.

He also stressed the importance of using the right tool for the job, something  Fergus Bell agreed with.

Bell pointed out that social media tools have different uptakes in different countries. People in Korea, for example, don’t use YouTube as their main upload service, and he  said it was important to “think about the person that’s using (social media), think about how they share their information”.

His main suggestion for Twitter was “lists, lists, lists and a few more lists”. A lot of the time people have already created lists that serve a newsgathering purpose. Instead of creating all his own lists he searches for existing lists – separated into those tailored for breaking news and those for more long term usability.

Bell described spending hours finding all political candidates for the US mid-term elections and compiling them into a list – providing a source of information that was able to be fed into wider Associated Press reporting.

Nicola Hughes cited her use of Trendsmap as a key way of sorting through the social media noise around a breaking news story.

Stories spread quickly across location making it difficult to identify the original source of information, and Trendsmap allows you to identify what’s being said and where.

She followed with a live demo of @Scrape_No10, a twitterfeed that chronologically tweets all hospitality and gifts received at 10 Downing Street.

One thing that all speakers agreed on was fact-checking and verifying information – even if rumours of breaking news are already circulating on Twitter.

Alex Gubbay‘s demonstration of the BBC’s forensic approach to newsgathering showed a keen attention to detail and checking for inconsistencies in crowdsourced content.

“The social web gives us more content, gives us lots of views on the scene. But to get it right you have to combine it with human effort, building trust with eye witnesses and doing detective work,” he said.


LIVE: Session 1B – Sorting the social media chaos

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 1B ‘Sorting the social media chaos’, below.

Session 1B features: Nicola Hughes, data journalist, Data Miner UK; Alex Gubbay, social media editor, BBC News; Neal Mann, freelance field producer, Sky News; Fergus Bell, senior producer for the Associated Press. Moderated by Suw Charman-Anderson, social technologist.

news:rewired session 1B – Sorting the social media chaos

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