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Twitter news FEATURE

FEATURE Twitter news

HOW TWITTER’S BREAKING THE NEWS Newspaper and television news crews are increasingly losing out to social media. Barry Collins investigates how Twitter is setting, shaping and breaking the news


t’s 2.30pm on 22 May, and at the top of the BBC News website is a brief story about a man being “attacked” in the street in Woolwich, south London. The story is remarkable for its ordinariness: a man has been the victim of an assault outside an army barracks and police are attending the scene, the BBC reports. Street crime in south London isn’t exactly rare. It wouldn’t usually make the front page of the local newspaper, let alone the top of the BBC News website. What the hell is going on?



The real story is breaking on Twitter, and hell isn’t an entirely inaccurate description as a local musician out buying fruit and veg suddenly becomes a frontline reporter. “Ohhhhh myyyy God!!!! I just see a man with his head chopped off right in front of my eyes!” tweets @Boyadee, in a message that’s rapidly retweeted tens of thousands of times. “Oh my God!!!! The way Feds took them out!!! It was a female police officer she come

finger clean off… Feds didnt pet to just take him out!!” Meanwhile, the detail-free BBC report remains largely unchanged at the top of the site, its editors clearly aware that a major, horrifying incident is taking place but hamstrung by the (arguably admirable) requirement to double-check facts before reporting them to the world. And so the BBC continues to run an incongruous-looking but factually correct story at the top of the site, while anyone with a Twitter account is following the gruesome commentary from those at the scene. Before the BBC or any other broadcaster has time to get a camera crew to the scene, a passer-by uses his smartphone to record an extraordinary monologue by one of the alleged attackers, who’s gripping what appears to be a meat clever in his bloodied hands. Traditional media uses its last remaining trump card – money – to acquire the footage, with ITV News claiming the exclusive rights to the video for its early evening broadcast, but this is undoubtedly an event where Twitter and so-called citizen journalists have outshone the professionals. And it’s by no means the first. The Arab Spring, the London riots, the Boston bombings – these are all major events where Twitter and social media have set the news agenda. But what impact is this rush of amateur news reporting having on the news itself? How do broadcasters and newspapers compete when they’re beaten to almost every major incident by a hundred bystanders with smartphones? And is it now the case that the news professionals are copying the amateurs, and not the other way round?

out the whip and just started bussssin shots!!” His reporting style is some way from the BBC style guide, but he’s got everyone’s attention. “The first guy goes for the female fed with the machete and she not even ramping she took man out like robocop never seen nutn like it.” “Then the next breda try buss off the rusty 45 and it just backfires and blows mans

Boston bombings

The bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier this year offered a prime illustration of social media at its unmatchable best and its appalling worst when it comes to covering major news stories. Although television broadcasters and newspapers were already at the scene to cover the marathon, the most illuminating early reports of the attack emerged from Twitter. Almost immediately after the first blast, eyewitnesses began to describe and photograph the incident. A map created after the event recorded more than half a million individual tweets about the attack from within the Boston area in the following three hours. Twitter’s echo chamber effect saw those early tweets rebound around the world millions of times, giving distant observers a handful of accounts to latch on to for live updates while news crews hurried to the scene. Traditional media outlets were immediately on the back foot, and were receiving their updates from Twitter like the rest of us. People switching on the TV to watch the news unfold were disappointed to find broadcasters lagging behind what they were reading on their PCs and smartphones. Even The Boston Globe – which had no excuse for not having reporters on the scene – temporarily handed over its homepage to a live Twitter feed, retweeting messages from eyewitnesses and the emergency services instead of its own reporters. The BBC came in for particularly heavy criticism a few days later, as many people accused it of being slow to identify the chief suspects, and disparaged its cautious reporting of the armed manhunt for them. While Twitter was ablaze with gripping eyewitness accounts of the armed siege taking place in Boston, The Woolwich murder was reported live by a Twitter user

New Statesman described the hunt for the Boston bomber as a “racist Where’s Wally”

BBC radio and television reports were, once again, one step behind. “The BBC is in an unusual position in that it has more platforms than any other journalistic organisation I know,” wrote Charlie Beckett, founding director of the POLIS journalism think-tank at the London School of Economics, about its coverage of the Boston bombings manhunt. “It also has a deliberate policy of verification rather than just speculation or narration. So despite an excellent newsroom social media operation, it is always going to feel slightly ‘behind’ on stories like this.” If the BBC was showing deliberate caution, it wasn’t without good cause. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, users of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and, in particular, reddit pored over photos and video footage of the scene shortly before the attack in a bid to try and crowdsource the identity of the attackers. New Statesman described the process as a “racist Where’s Wally”, with the sites largely attempting to identify non-white males carrying rucksacks. reddit users fixed on one “suspect” in particular, 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing since March. Many broadcasters, newspapers and websites – keen not to cede any more ground to the social-networking news machine – either named Tripathi as a suspect or hinted at his identity. They were, of course, wrong, and reddit issued a public apology, admitting that it “had fuelled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation [that] spiralled into very negative consequences for innocent parties”. Those consequences initially seemed very severe when Tripathi’s body was discovered in a river only days later, although it appears that his death was unrelated to him being identified as a suspect.



Twitter news FEATURE

FEATURE Twitter news

If you can’t beat ’em

Despite its flaws, Twitter and social media have clearly had a disruptive effect on newsrooms. Indeed, the journalistic instinct to relay news as quickly as possible means most television and newspaper reporters are now breaking news on Twitter before their own websites, irrespective of the potential commercial harm it might do to their titles. After all, tweets earn a publisher precisely no revenue. Twitter has also changed the way news is reported. Before 2010, court reporting largely consisted of reporters jotting down shorthand notes and rushing outside the courtroom to relay them to the TV cameras or file reports for their website. In December 2010, however, the lord chief justice ruled that “the use of an unobtrusive, handheld, virtually silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice”. Reporters now routinely tweet from the press gallery, providing the first real-time coverage of court proceedings in

Live tweeting has become a staple for mainstream media

“With court reporting, it’s critical to deliver exact quotations, not paraphrases,” Thomas added. “That doesn’t tend to work on Twitter, which requires you to be succinct. On occasion we found that, where a headline quote emerged, we had to follow up, letting the news desk and the website know precisely which words came from the barrister and which from the twittering broadcaster.” Court reporters aren’t the only journalists embracing Twitter. Sports reporters routinely tweet live updates from matches and quotes from pre- and post-match press conferences. Any major tech announcement is live-tweeted by dozens of websites, including PC Pro. Breaking news stories often appear on Twitter first, thanks largely to the service’s ease of use and immediacy – a reporter need only tap a few words into their phone and press Send, rather than log in to a content management system, fill out the required fields and wait for an editor or sub-editor to read their work. This desire to break news as quickly as possible on Twitter has given rise to some interesting internal conflicts. The BBC sparked a mini furore in media circles in 2012 when it issued guidance to reporters, stating that “our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches Reporters for the mainstream news have had to embrace Twitter BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after the history of British justice. It’s an enormous it reaches Twitter.” responsibility for the courtroom reporters, The guidance was interpreted – perhaps, who must continue to ensure that their not unreasonably – as an edict that journalists tweets don’t interfere with justice and report shouldn’t break stories on Twitter, forcing what’s being said accurately within the limits the BBC to issue a clarification on its of 140 characters, as well as performing their Editors’ Blog a day later. “To clarify any regular reporting jobs. “There is a danger when misconceptions, this guidance isn’t about writing notes, thinking about scripts and texting telling BBC journalists not to break stories tweets that you will miss the subtleties of legal on Twitter,” the update read. “It’s about argument; the way that a line of questioning making sure stories are broken as quickly and is being developed,” wrote the BBC’s Philippa efficiently as possible to our large audiences Thomas after her first attempt at courtroom on a wide range of platforms – Twitter, other tweeting during the Stephen Lawrence murder social networks, our own website, continuous trial in 2012. “There are pitfalls for journalists TV and radio news channels, TV and radio in trying to do too much and failing to do bulletins and programmes across several anything properly – the common lament networks.” Clear as mud, then. of our multitasking, multimedia age.”



A Sky journalist’s impromptu iPhone video of the London riots became a defining report

YouTube reporting

Twitter isn’t the only social media service being used to break news. YouTube has become another crucial channel for journalists, even those who have their own television news channel and camera crews to call on. During the London riots in 2012, Sky’s Mark Stone found himself among looters who were brazenly ransacking shops in Clapham. Instead of waiting for a Sky camera crew to arrive in south London and risk the looters dispersing, or scaring them off with the prospect of having their faces splashed all over national television, Stone fished his iPhone out of his pocket and began recording what he saw. Stone’s report was extraordinary for two reasons: the footage of youths breaking into shops and walking out unchallenged with whatever they could find was shocking in its own right, but even more extraordinary was the way Stone walked up to the looters and called them to account for their actions, more in the style of an angry resident than an impassive observer. “Are you proud of what you’re doing?” Stone yells at looters, emerging from a branch of Currys Digital with huge boxes in their hands. “Stealing stuff, what’s that about?” In fact, when asked if he’s a journalist by another looter, Stone replies, “No, I live here, I’m just astounded at what you’re doing.” And so a piece of “citizen journalism” – with its shaky video, amateur production values and rough-and-ready style of questioning – became one of the defining television broadcasts of the riots, with Stone acclaimed as one of its “heroes”.

Agenda setting

Traditional news outlets don’t only take style cues from social media, they take stories too. Tabloid and middle-market newspapers have staff dedicated to monitoring the Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles of celebrities and other public figures, in case they say anything newsworthy or post a revealing photo. Sports stars – who would previously have had their

press statements and interviews filtered through press officers or agents – are particularly forthcoming. Footballers have even been fined and banned for bringing the game into disrepute after tweeting indiscrete comments that have ended up all over the media. It isn’t always newspapers shaming celebrities via social media; sometimes it’s the other way round. Actress Evan Rachel Wood used Twitter to lambast the Daily Mail website after it published pictures of her unborn baby without her permission. She was photographed by paparazzi as she left an LA hospital holding

her latest ultrasound picture. “That’s my child,” Wood tweeted. “It’s not even out of the womb and they are snapping photos of it. I have never been more violated by a photographer.” The Daily Mail subsequently removed the story from its website, seemingly without apology. As well as photos of celebrities’ unborn babies, newspapers and broadcasters seem to have little compunction about republishing any photo or video they find on a social media site without seeking the owner’s permission. There have been numerous cases of photographers complaining that their photos were “stolen” by newspapers. In 2010, for example, photographer Emily James posted a photo of a protest at a British polling station using Twitpic, which subsequently appeared without her prior knowledge on several national newspaper websites. The Times and The Guardian subsequently apologised and paid James compensation for the photos, according to reports. But when she invoiced the Daily Mail website

for the photos it published without permission, she received an email from the picture editor informing her “we cannot pay the amount you have requested [£1,190 for three photos]” because “these images were taken from TwitPic and therefore placed in the public domain”. The picture editor reportedly offered her only £40 per image, but later agreed to pay more. Twitter may have stolen the media’s thunder, but the media’s certainly getting something back in return.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood used Twitter to complain of intrusion

GRAPHIC PHOTOS: IS SOCIAL MEDIA MOVING BOUNDARIES? Newspaper picture editors have always tried to strike a delicate balance between powerful photographs and those that are too graphic for a family audience. Twitter, on the other hand, has no such self-censorship. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, several images of victims with limbs missing were circulated, often without any warning of the graphic photos behind the link. Newspaper picture desks were offered many similar images by photographers after the London bombings in 2005, but those never

The press don’t always seek permission to use images from social media sites

made it into circulation: most were rejected by picture editors, and a lack of high-resolution camera phones and social media sites (Twitter wasn’t formed until 2006) meant they didn’t appear online, either. Yet almost every newspaper ran with front-page photos of the Woolwich murder suspect grasping a bloody cleaver in his hand – all screengrabbed from that passer-by’s smartphone video. Are newspaper editors and their readers being desensitised by graphic photos on social media? Are newspapers willing to take greater risks with photos, through fear of losing out to Twitter and its like? “I think papers are still quite squeamish about showing violence and gore,” a senior member of a national newspaper’s photo desk told PC Pro. “The Woolwich killing was an exception, and it will be interesting to see if it changes attitudes. I think the cleaver image was used widely because it

was out there, and all over social media and TV. It was also the only image for the story – there wasn’t a ‘softer’ way of illustrating it. “When covering stories such as Syria or the Bangladesh clothing factory collapse, we were very careful not to show pictures that were too graphic. A few days after Bangladesh we found a set of pictures by [Bangladesh-based photographer] Taslima Akhter that showed bodies in the rubble. The pictures were powerful, but after a long, very intense discussion between the picture editor and foreign editor, it was decided not to run them. “I thought we were insane at the time, but having discussed it with friends over the days after, I suspect we were right not to publish them as everyone told me that it would have put them off reading the piece. The pictures have been run in print since, but they have appeared online much more extensively.”



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