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In today's news climate breaking news often appears on Twitter before going through any formal editorial processing. When non-journalists Tweet about breaking news they're experiencing, people see it as an individual account, understanding the limitations that go with that.
But when news organizations break news on Twitter it can compromise journalistic integrity and undercut one of main reasons news organizations use social media: to drive traffic to websites. Sometimes breaking news on Twitter doesn't compromise accuracy, as when a televised press conference is live Tweeted. In other situations, however, it can harm news organizations. What's the best approach?
Twitter as a Breaking News "Wire"
In 2011, NPR senior digital media strategist Andy Carvin turned his Twitter account into a breaking news wire about the Arab Spring protests. He sought out voices of those who were there and shared information in almost real time. Many of his 400-plus Twitter posts per day were unconfirmed comments from protesters. These Tweets were preceded by the word "Source?" to indicate that he was in the process of fact checking and to make it clear that he wasn't posting sourced information. Some of Carvin's Twitter followers stepped in to translate comments and research information further, and many of those followers were journalists. Carver's actions earned him accolades and can be seen as an example of breaking news on Twitter done well.
Examples of Social Media Policies for Breaking News
Here are policies for breaking news on social media from major news outlets:
Sky News - "... don't tweet when it is not a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work...Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter. Such information could be wrong and has not been through the Sky News editorial process."
The Washington Post - "Reporters, producers and editors must evaluate any story before posting it on Washington Post accounts. As a general rule, we do not cite information that isn't sourced. If we are confident in the sourcing of a third-party report, we may cite it on social networks while also attributing the information to the original source.
AP (Executive Editor and Senior VP Kathleen Carroll to a 2012 AP Media Editors meeting in Nashville, TN that included many AP clients) - ''You all pay us a chunk of change to break news to you, and so we do,'' she said. ''And once it's broken to you, we promote it on the social networks.''
Reuters - Journalists are told not to "scoop the wire" by using Twitter to break news. Reuters journalists are to break news stories first via wire.
Most digital news publishers have guidelines for breaking news on social media, and a great resource for these guidelines is the American Society of News Editors' ASNE 10 Best Practices for Social News Organizations, which includes social media guidelines for 18 news organizations.
What Should Your Policy Be?
Your social media policy on breaking news is influenced by numerous factors, but you generally have three options:
1. Feeding the information beast at the possible expense of journalistic integrity. Many celebrity news websites go this route because their primary goal is acquiring page views.
2. Sacrificing breaking news traffic for higher journalistic standards. Print publications like The New Yorker consider themselves to be the source audiences seek for analysis after the dust settles rather than as events unfold.
3. Adopting a hybrid approach by pursuing real-time relevance while minimizing threats to journalistic integrity. These organizations use of social media, but with some journalistic filtering and labeling of information that is not clearly sourced.
When you allow employees to break news on social media, instruct them to include links to your website, and clearly label items that are sketchily sourced. When you have a breaking story with heavy deadline pressure, it's tempting to grab details from a subject's Facebook page and post it, but this is very risky. While culling such information about public figures may be acceptable, it should never be done with certain social media accounts, like those of minors. Discuss these issues with your journalists, and revisit the topic regularly as social media evolves and potential problems come to light. Breaking news stories on social media can be done well, but it requires vigilance and commitment to journalistic integrity.
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