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.
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.
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. Social media editor Chris Hamilton does note, importantly, that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”. However, this is coupled with the position 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.”
This is an interesting line of argument, and there are a number of competing priorities underlying it that I want to understand more clearly.
Firstly, it implies a separation of newsroom systems and Twitter. If newsroom staff are not following their own journalists on Twitter as part of their systems, 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. The connection between internal systems and Twitter is notable.
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)
“When the technology [to inform the newsroom and generate a tweet at the same time] isn’t available, for whatever reason, we’re asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending a tweet.
“We’re talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.
“And we’re talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that’s moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the guidance will evolve as quickly.”
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.