By now you’re all likely to be aware of Sky News making significant changes to their employees’ social media usage via an email to staff last Tuesday.
In this week’s Media Mouthwash podcast I called the policy “anti-web”, but I’ve deliberately left it this long before writing something about it because I think it’s a much more nuanced issue than some dissenting voices have made out.
Don’t tweet when it’s someone else’s story
This is probably the most galling aspect of the policy. If an employee isn’t particularly social media-savvy, then there’s no harm in another journalist using Twitter and other networks to promote and share their content in a way that means it’ll get maximum exposure.
If I was the only person sharing my own work around Twitter, then it’d get very limited traction, and there’s no harm in staff helping get extra eyeballs onto a colleague’s piece.
Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks
There is fundementally nothing wrong with this. If we’re acknowledging that Twitter is a medium like any other, and one that should sit alongside videos, blogs and audio reports amongst Sky News’ output, then it makes sense that it should be properly integrated with the news desk.
Communication with the desk is essential in order to make the news operation an efficient one. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, but I can’t imagine the vast majority of news editors being too happy with a journalist breaking a story on Twitter and then strolling over and telling the desk about it a few minutes later.
Breaking news without context on Twitter holds little or no value for the journalist or his/her audience in itself. The value comes from using Twitter as the start of a narrative.
When I was covering the bomb blasts and shootings in Oslo, I started by using Storify to collect information and photos about events in the city centre. Then when people became aware of the shootings, I moved to turning my Twitter feed into one dedicated to covering new developments.
My follower count didn’t rise because I was constantly breaking new information on Twitter, but because I was able to organise it more efficiently into an understandable narrative than others covering it at the time. I didn’t retweet everything I saw, I thought carefully about how people following me would be able to easily understand what was happening.
Breaking news in itself holds little value – were my parents really any the worse for getting the full picture of the London riots on Newsnight rather than watching it unfold in real time on Twitter?
Passing lines to the news desk before tweeting makes good sense in a large organisation because the news desk is the hub that controls their coverage. They can distribute information to correspondents, multimedia specialists and graphics teams.
The ego of a single journalist itching to grab a bit of social media limelight should be able to bow to the collective nature of a news operation in order to strengthen its overall coverage. As Martin Belam notes, “being first really mattered when your rivals had a 24 hour print cycle before they could catch up”.
If anything, this shows that Sky would like to step away from the “never wrong for long” tag that indicates they’re happy to be wrong as long as they correct themselves quickly.
The BBC are rarely quicker than Sky when it comes to breaking news, but hold far more trust because they seem to pride context and verification much more. Is it a bad thing that Sky want to move toward this model more? I don’t think so.
Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter.
This is slightly more problematic, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s removing the social from social media. As a Sky News employee, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to cover Oslo or the riots in the way that I did if I’d adhered to this rule.
However, if you look at the social media usage of many journalists, they primarily use it as a promotional, rather than as a news gathering tool. Sky News’ new social media policy does not stop journalists from seeking out sources on Twitter, or finding photos that can be later added to strengthen news coverage. There are lots of journalists with big followings on Twitter, but only a fraction of them seem to use social media to actually dig things out and add another aspect to traditional sources.
If anything, the whole debate seems to be a microcosm of the divide that often seeks to engulf any rational discussion about online journalism. That is, if you don’t agree entirely with the popular view of mainstream media persistently “not getting it”, then you’re old news, you’re irrelevant, or Victorian.
I think it’s important to understand that there are many shades of grey – what works for Sky News wouldn’t work for Tech Crunch and vice versa. This policy is neither surprising nor as draconian as some commentators have implied – what’s more interesting will be observing if it becomes indicative of Sky News’ shift to a markedly different kind of news provider.