Should journalists have the power to break news first? – The BBC’s use of Twitter

The BBC has had a troublesome time of late with it being involved in the Jimmy Savile scandal, and then the whole debacle with Newsnight naming of a man alleged to be a paedophile, but who actually wasn’t a paedophile.

On the whole, though, the BBC News website has maintained its popularity throughout the 15 years since it began, with the general election of 2010 being the day that generated the most traffic. All articles on the BBC News site have options to be posted on Twitter, which are of a similar format as The Guardian, with a previously typed-out message (usually headline and link) that a user can simply hit the ‘tweet’ button to share the link with their followers.

The BBC also has a series of Twitter accounts that users can follow to get the news they want. From BBC News UK (@BBCNews) to BBC World News (@BBCWorld) to BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking), tweets can follow whichever account(s) they wish to hear from the most. The BBC also has a range of local and regional accounts for people to follow, as well as accounts for their individual television programmes. They really have made extensive use of Twitter, which is highly beneficial for them in terms of tweets being retweeted and shares, and links being clicked on to increase readership figures. (In 2007, the BBC was the UK’s most viewed news website, drawing in 14m individual readers per week.)

Being that the BBC has been – and arguably still is – at the forefront of utilising Twitter, I was surprised to find out that the company has imposed restrictions on its journalists tweeting and breaking news. In the 2012 guidelines, Chris Hamilton said:

“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.” (source)

Although Hamilton later quashes the ‘rumour’ that the BBC is not letting its journalists break news on Twitter, the restrictions it has in place makes it difficult for the BBC and its journalists to make an impact when news happens. Alfred Hermida, a co-creator of the BBC website, has spoken out on the issue and has said the move “is based on a flawed understanding of today’s media ecosystem”. He continued:

“To advise journalists not to break news on Twitter is anachronistic. It ignores the value that a journalist and their parent organisation can gain by signalling that they are across a major development.” (source)

So, is it harmful for journalists not to be able to break news straight-away on Twitter? Or is it a good thing to fact-check and get the best possible story out there to readers? It’s hard to say; time is of the essence now when breaking news on the internet, but with the rise of citizen journalism and the unreliability of information, perhaps sensibleness should prevail over urgency.

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