Even as some news outlets like Associated Press hire social-media editors to try and figure out how to make use of tools like Twitter for journalistic purposes, others seem to be intent on locking these tools down and removing as much of the social aspects from them as possible. According to a report in The Guardian, broadcaster Sky News has come out with a new policy that bars reporters from posting anything other than work-related content on Twitter, prevents them from breaking news through the service — and even forbids them from retweeting anything that doesn’t come from a Sky News account. As with so many other similar social-media policies, this completely misses the point of what makes Twitter so powerful.
Although it doesn’t link to an actual document, the Guardian story quotes from the Sky News guidelines, which tell reporters not to tweet about stories if they are not “a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work,” and says that anything approaching breaking news must be sent to a Sky editor first before being posted. The policy says that retweeting other Sky journalists is fine — provided they are posting updates about a story to which they have been assigned — but it says Sky staff are forbidden from retweeting anything that hasn’t been posted by a Sky News account:
Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter. Such information could be wrong and has not been through the Sky News editorial process.
Twitter is the newswire now, for better or worse
This is even more draconian than the most recent example of a news outlet trying to lock down Twitter use — namely, the Associated Press newswire, which came out with standards for retweeting that not only mis-stated how the process works on Twitter, but also forbade journalists working for the newswire from retweeting anything without adding a comment to make it clear that they were not agreeing with the person being retweeted. The AP rules also strictly forbid breaking news on Twitter, which ignores the fact (as I pointed out at the time) that for many people the real-time information network has become the newswire.
Since then, AP has hired Eric Carvin to be the service’s social-media editor (Carvin is the brother of National Public Radio’s Twitter phenom Andy Carvin, who turned his Twitter account into a one-man newswire during the Arab Spring revolutions). At a recent social-media event in New York, Eric told me that he was trying hard to convince the wire service that the benefits of social tools like Twitter outweigh the disadvantages. But as with so many traditional media outlets, both AP and Sky chose to focus their policies on what their staff shouldn’t do, instead of concentrating on what they should do.
As we’ve pointed out before, these kinds of rules seem to be aimed at trying to remove the human being from the process, something that may work in traditional forms of media, but fails miserably when using social tools like Twitter. The whole point of using them is to be social, and that means expressing human emotions and possibly even opinions in some cases. The best social-media policies — like the exceptionally minimalist version that Media News CEO John Paton came up with — simply ask reporters and editors to be themselves, but to think about what they post before doing so, and to use common sense and “don’t be stupid.”
Why remove the social from social media?
Sky News says in the email it sent to employees that the guidelines were necessary to ensure that “there is sufficient editorial control of stories reported by Sky News journalists and that the news desks remain the central hub for information.” And obviously, a news service doesn’t want dozens of reporters tweeting rumors and innuendo about major breaking stories, or tipping competitors off to a scoop. But banning staff from retweeting anyone outside the Sky News operation makes no sense whatsoever, as Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics notes — Sky reporters should be seen as the key sources for information, regardless of where it comes from.
During the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter was the first to broach the rumor — on Twitter — that the terrorist leader had been killed, when he retweeted a post from the former chief of staff for Defence Minister Donald Rumsfeld. Some wondered whether Stelter would get in trouble from the Times for retweeting something that hadn’t been confirmed, and for posting it before his own newspaper. But as far as I know, there were no repercussions — and Stelter’s tweet in turn was retweeted thousands of times, and likely broke the news to many.
That’s what Twitter can accomplish if you use it properly, instead of seeing nothing but threats and potential negative repercussions. Like other media outlets that have tried the same approach, Sky News risks removing all the benefits of a powerful media tool by treating its staff as though they were disobedient children. Elana Zak of 10,000 Words has a Storify roundup of some other responses to the Sky News policy.