AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Who Gets It First: Twitter or the Editors?   

Two very different approaches to posting news on social media venues. Fri., March 16, 2012.

By Carl Straumsheim
Carl Straumsheim (@cfstraumsheim) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

Veterans of the Twitterverse have grown used to seeing the hashtag "#BREAKING:" followed by a sentence of seconds-old news, leaving them to trust the sender's unspoken promise that an accompanying story is minutes away.

But whom should journalists inform first when they have a big story―their editors or the Internet? As reporters begin to grow more comfortable with social media, the question is being raised in newsrooms around the world.

The debate has spawned two opposing schools of thought: One group of news organizations is treating social media similarly to their print or online outlets, requiring that the tweets pass through an editorial checkpoint before being distributed. Another group is scrapping editorial oversight of Twitter altogether, allowing reporters to freely break news.

One staunch subscriber to the former group is the BBC, which introduced its new social media guidelines in February guidelines that suggest the breaking news will have to wait a few seconds. BBC journalists must notify the newsdesk as soon as they tweet, while officially branded accounts (like @BBCBreaking) require editorial preclearance.

"The golden rule for our core news, programme or genre activity is that whatever is published on Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else - MUST HAVE A SECOND PAIR OF EYES PRIOR TO PUBLICATION ," the BBC states in its social media guidelines. (The emphasis is the BBC's, not mine.)

BBC reporters use a text messaging system to alert the newsroom to their tweets, but even when the system is down, social media editor Chris Hamilton says journalists must prioritize notifying their editor.

"We're talking a difference of a few seconds," Hamilton wrote in an update to the February memo. "In some situations."

Ken Paulson, president of the American Society of News Editors, calls the BBC's guidelines a "refinement of the principles we've all lived by throughout our careers."

"I have been very surprised at the relative lack of accountability from news organizations that report inaccurately," Paulson says. "Much of my career was in print, and if you made an error, you had to 'fess up the next day prominently. With the Web culture came a sense by some that it doesn't matter who made the error. Twitter escalates that further. It just seems people pretend they didn't tweet inaccurately."

Paulson says Twitter's brevity and immediacy don't give the news media a pass on accuracy. "People kind of shrug and say it's the nature of the medium," he says. "I think you need to apply the same standard to tweets as you apply to articles. It's just journalism―it's just more succinct."

Paulson, chairman of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, says a news organization's dedication to accuracy trumps other concerns. "I understand the power of social media, I understand the allure. I just also believe strongly news organizations need to control their content in order to ensure its credibility," he says.

But Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm.com, a popular media and technology blog, says news outlets are missing the mark by imposing old standards on social media. "I think the real problem .. is that they tend to see Twitter, in particular, as a competitor, and so they tell their journalists not to post breaking news to Twitter to save it for the newspaper, the broadcast or the wire," he says. "I think that's the wrong way to look at it.

"Not taking advantage of social media or trying to handcuff or hamper your journalists' ability to take advantage of social media is really shortsighted," Ingram says. "It's basically handicapping yourself in a race in which you're already handicapped."

While the BBC's actions have earned it a place in what Ingram has termed the "anti-social media brigade," he also points out that some news organizations are taking a very different approach. Among them is BuzzFeed, long known as an aggregator of viral images and video, which recently launched its own original political reporting.

"We're a really Twitter-heavy group," says BuzzFeed political reporter Rosie Gray, who describes the social network as "integral" to its operation.

While BuzzFeed's reporters all have individual styles of posting, Gray says the organization has no intention of requiring editorial control of social media. "Breaking news on Twitter happens," she says. "If it's something that deserves a larger item, write the item instead."

BuzzFeed's political reporters have amassed tens of thousands of tweets many of them from the campaign trail. Their editor, former Politico blogger Ben Smith, has said his vision for BuzzFeed was to organize it around social media.

Ingram praised BuzzFeed's approach to Twitter. "Instead of seeing it as an afterthought, to them, it's the whole deal," he says. "They're committed totally to understanding it and taking advantage of it and figuring out how it works."

But legacy news outlets aren't necessarily doing any worse than their new-media competition. At the Washington Post, a team of editors and reporters got together to write the organization's social media guidelines, which went into effect last September 1.

Assistant Managing Editor Peter Perl says the Post's main intention was to avoid hamstringing its reporters' ability to report breaking news as quickly as possible, especially during 'live' news events. He says the guidelines grant reporters a "measure of autonomy" to post unedited news (read: tweets) to the Web.

"Our choice is basically that we would rather encourage our journalists to get the news out quickly and carefully rather than to put a roadblock in their way that requires prior clearance," Perl says. Postings are edited as quickly as possible.

Of the news organizations subscribing to the Post's model, some like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are eyeing an opportunity to use Twitter to boost their own authority.

Reporters for the Journal Sentinel are free to break news on Twitter without first checking in with an editor a practice Managing Editor George Stanley says has been a success.

"In a newsroom like ours, it's preferable to have your journalists be able to make those decisions themselves," says Stanley. "What we really want is for our beat reporters to be at the center of their community of interest. That includes being the town crier of social media that people trust."

Stanley points to an episode last February when senior baseball reporter Tom Haudricourt reported on the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun, who became the first Major League Baseball player to successfully appeal a drug test result. Haudricourt was by no means first to post the story, but, unlike the Associated Press, he got it right. "I've been told AP is reporting Braun lost his appeal. Believe me, Braun won," Haudricourt tweeted.

Haudricourt's handling of the issue on Twitter has reaffirmed his credibility in breaking news, Stanley says: He "is doing exactly what we want our best reporters to do. He's at the center of his community of interest that he covers on Twitter, his blog and in the paper."

But news organizations that are copying the BBC's blueprint are also capitalizing on social media. In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette created the post of social media editor to integrate Twitter and other online tools into the newspaper's newsgathering arsenal.

The Post-Gazette hired Mila Sanina, whose past employers include CNN International and PBS' "NewsHour." Sanina proved her Twitter prowess shortly after being hired when―as news about Moammar Gadhafi's death broke last October―she tracked down a Pittsburgher's uncle who happened to be involved with Libya's transitional government in Benghazi.

"We didn't have anybody on the ground, and we wanted to do primary reporting, and social media enabled us to do that," Sanina says. "We explore initiatives like that more and more and realize the potential is huge."

But while Sanina says her main goal is to get as many Post-Gazette journalists on Twitter as possible, she still supports requiring some editorial control of social media. "If there is a major breaking news story, it has to first be read by an editor and then tweeted," she says.

Which gets the stamp of approval from Ken Paulson. "That strikes me as entirely reasonable and consistent with the history of journalism," Paulson says. "Is it appropriate for a newsroom to tell journalists not to tweet without the knowledge of the organization? Of course it is. It's as appropriate as an editor saying 'We're putting your article in Wednesday's newspaper, not Tuesday's.' "

But Paulson predicts other news organizations will be more inclined to follow the Washington Post's example. "I think the temptation will be to loosen it up," he says. "But part of that is how many times people mess up. If I were the editor of a news organization, I would have guidelines. At the same time, I would encourage reporters to freely engage in social media."

Update: Details of the BBC's social media guidelines have been added and clarified since this article was originally posted.