If I had to guess, I would say that more than half of the breaking news stories I come across these days first showed up for me in my Twitter feed. For those of you who are also engaged in social media for the majority of your day, it’s probably a similar figure. When breaking news is happening, the first reporters to get hold of the story frequently tweet something out before anything shows up on the usual news websites. We pick them up either by following those news outlets or someone who retweets the announcement.
Of course, this sort of trigger happy reporting leads to problems sometimes. (A lot of the time, to be honest.) Initial reports from the field frequently turn out to be inaccurate and breaking headlines without key details leaves a vacuum for others to fill in with guesses which are quickly repeated as facts. Some hot headlines eventually turn out to be entirely false, either through misunderstandings or intentional hoaxing. This reality has the BBC considering a directive to move their reporters off of Twitter, or at least to restrict the things they can tweet about in their professional capacity. But not everyone is pleased with the proposal. (The Guardian)
The BBC is considering restricting its journalists’ use of Twitter. If the plan is approved, top correspondents will be told to move away from using online platforms to break stories or offer instant analysis.
The proposal follows criticism of online comments made by staff during the election campaign. Political editor Laura Kuenssberg was attacked by some Jeremy Corbyn supporters for repeating, along with other pundits, a false allegation that a Tory minister’s aide had been punched by a Labour activist. North America editor Jon Sopel has meanwhile been accused of tweets that reveal a critical stance on Donald Trump.
Now Fran Unsworth, the director of news and current affairs, is believed to be keen to persuade journalists to end the practice of frequently posting on politics and current affairs.
Some will obviously see any ban on Twitter use by the BBC as a free speech issue for its reporters. Unfortunately, that’s really not the case. Employers can place all sorts of restrictions on their workers if it involves their business interests. And besides, we’re talking about the UK here, not America, so they don’t technically have true freedom of speech to begin with.
But even with all that said, is this really a good idea? Sure, mistakes happen from time to time. That fake story about a Conservative Party minister’s aide being punched in the nose by a Labour Party activist right before the election is a good example. But the vast majority of breaking news items coming from the Twitter accounts of reporters wind up being true, at least in the broad strokes.
If your outlet’s reporters are barred from tweeting about something, the rest of your competition will be way out in front on the story long before you can investigate and get anything published on your web site, to say nothing of a print edition. That’s just the nature of the news beast these days. And most of the damage done by the Twitter news patrol doesn’t come from the reporter who initially announces the story. It’s caused by people filling in the blanks for themselves as I mentioned at the top.
It just seems to me that better guidelines about how the BBC’s reporters break stories on social media could improve their performance without putting a muzzle on their newsroom. And while we’re on the subject, most American media outlets could probably take a page from this book and review their own policies. It’s not as if we’ve exactly got clean hands on this side of the pond either.