This tweet made me laugh, and then it made me stop and think about how social media has changed the way news outlets respond to breaking news.
In the olden days (just a year or two ago) news organisations would get reports of an explosion from people on the phone, on email and perhaps on Twitter and Facebook too. The old mantra was to get as much information as possible, then phone the police and find out if the reports could be confirmed. As soon as that information was granted we would write a report for the internet which we would then share on social media. We would then update that report as the news changed. In an ideal world, the publication of this first report would take no more than ten minutes. But, in reality, it could take much longer, depending on the response from the authorities and how lively our website was feeling that day.
The old mantra also used to be ‘no point in publishing if you haven’t got anything to say…’ with the idea that established news organisations were better be late and informed, than rushed and flimsy.
Oh, how times have changed.
Now, the people using Twitter are the eyes of the world. As proved by this tweet, people on social media report a noise like an explosion in Manchester. Give the BBC ten minutes to get the story online and that’s ten minutes where people interested in finding out more have been searching, retweeting and clicking on any accounts of said loud noise. It doesn’t matter if those tweets being retweeted are from people who have sought to establish if the explosion has happened or not. Twitter doesn’t care if information is correct as much as it cares about information first. By the time the BBC tweets out its factually accurate news report, it has missed out on hundreds of hits, clicks and retweets and already it looks ‘out of date’.
So, what to do instead? If every cough, sneeze and loud bang that was tweeted was then picked up and reported on by traditional news sources then people would soon tire of the scores of mistaken explosions being reported inaccurately and would rightly accuse the BBC, or whoever, of trashy journalism based on flimsy sources. From experience, I would say this is a deciding line based on individual circumstances. The newsdesk has to make a snap decision about the ‘quality’ of the original report source before deciding if it’s worth pursuing. Usually there will have been at least three tweets from different people before calls are put in to the authorities and, depending on the potential severity of the situation, that’s when a decision will be made to put a ‘we are aware of a breaking news event, check here for more updates’ tweet and story online.
Where that story then goes is up to Twitter and the people using it (including other news providers, as proved by this tweet) – but the point is, if it’s a big tale, you were the first to break the story (even if it was a non-story at the time) and your tweet and tale will have people following you for the story rather than a rival.
Journalists are being forced to learn and adapt with the changes that social media throws at them and mistakes will sometimes be made along the way. It could have turned out these explosions were the start of something life changing. It in fact developed no further than a storm in a Twitter-tea cup – a prime example of how In the melee that is social media, traditional news sources are fighting to keep their place as the ‘go-to’ providers of information and more and more emphasis is being placed on speed over substance.