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How should TV newsrooms break stories on Twitter?

Sky News and BBC are both in industry headlines this week for changes to their social media policies that ensure reporters and editors alert the newsroom before breaking news on Twitter.

The BBC explains: “When they have some breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update on a story, they must get written copy into our newsroom system as quickly as possible, so that it can be seen and shared by everyone – both the news desks which deploy our staff and resources (like TV trucks) as well as television, radio and online production teams.”

The BBC says it will still break news on Twitter, but it will ensure that rest of the organization knows about it first. (By written copy, the BBC is referring to a short alert summarizing the new information.) As Sky News says, the goal is “to ensure that our journalism is joined up across platforms” and reduce the times when different information appears on Twitter than other Sky News platforms “or the news desks learning from Twitter details that should have been first passed on to them.”

(Sky News also issued controversial limitations on what its journalists can tweet and retweet, which is a different matter. For the purposes of this story, we’ll stick to breaking news.)

Wearing my TV news hat, both BBC and Sky News’ breaking news policies make a lot of sense. I worked as a an assignment editor for years (both local and network), and we hated surprises. Everyone expects the desk to know what’s going on, communicate immediately across platforms and ensure adequate resources are dispatched ahead of the competition. If everyone’s on the same page, the organization reacts quicker.

That said, I can’t tell you how many times I was surprised before Twitter came along: and the surprises happened on TV. The cable channel would scoop the broadcast channel, or vice versa. Local reporters on a developing story routinely broke new information on-air without telling the desk or the producer. Most of the time, it wasn’t negligence: in the speed of new information — especially if you’re on the air at the time — it’s often difficult to alert everyone before you broadcast it.

That’s certainly not ideal — and news organizations have set up internal alerting systems to help — but it still happens routinely. And it’s not the end of the world, because TV is the “core” platform, and there’s a bit of an expectation that the newsroom is watching its own air.

So if Twitter is just another distribution platform from the perspective of the consumer, why the hard-and-fast rules to delay breaking a story for a few moments until you ensure the newsroom is notified? If you’re a reporter in the field about to go live, would you delay your live shot to call it in first? If breaking something on Twitter under your own brand (reporters are brands, too) carries the same value as breaking it on TV, then what’s the difference? Is it just as easy to monitor your reporters’ tweets as it is to monitor your own air?

This is certainly not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison, and I’m not suggesting that BBC and Sky News are wrong. But I am suggesting that there may be exceptions to the rule. For starters, defining “breaking news” is a difficult task to begin with: a policy could make reporters think twice before tweeting, constraining their social reporting and slowing the organization overall. Often, it’s those unfiltered new developments tweeted straight from a field correspondent that are so powerful.

Yes, everyone should work hard to avoid surprises, which TV newsrooms still despise as much as I did years ago. But I think it’s OK if they happen occasionally on Twitter, just as they happen on TV.

What do you think?

(Full disclosure: I work for @breakingnews and BreakingNews.com. We also have a UK account, @breakingnewsUK, that often RTs the great work of BBC and Sky News.)

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