Sky News has, by common acclaim, just shot itself painfully in the foot by effectively banning its staff from using Twitter in most of the important ways that Twitter is used. As reported by The Guardian’s Josh Halliday, the new rules say, in short: Do not retweet any non-Sky News account – not journalists from rival organisations, and not members of the public; do not tweet news without passing it to the news-desk first; and do not tweet about topics that aren’t part of your beat or a story you are working on. In other words… er, don’t use Twitter.
(It’s worth noting that Josh tweeted virtually all the key details of his story in advance of it being published – presumably without running his tweets past Alan Rusbridger first – and yet still managed to file and publish quicker than anyone else. And in doing so, you have to suspect, made it far more likely the Guardian’s story would become the canonical telling of the tale once it was published.)
The reaction of Twitter users to this has been neatly Storified by Elena Zak – a concise summary would probably be “WT actual F?”. It’s reminiscent of the kerfuffle that broke out last year when Associated Press told its reporters not to tweet breaking news, because they were scooping the wire. While I broadly agree with the slightly incredulous reaction of Anthony De Rosa from their rivals Reuters, you could at least see AP’s point – they have clients who pay a lot of money for the privilege of getting AP’s scoops first, and getting them accurately. If they can just follow AP’s staffers on Twitter, bang goes the business model.
Like AP, but in different ways, Sky News is all about the scoops and the breaking news – far more so, even, than directly competing news channels. For such a prominent channel, it has relatively few viewers – around 0.6% of total viewing, less than Channel 4+1, CBBC, Dave or Yesterday, for example. But what it does have is a high percentage of viewers in lots of important places. Anywhere where breaking news is vital (like, say, every newsroom in the country) is likely to have Sky News on its TVs. With the best will in the world, they’re not there for its analysis or its coverage of under-reported topics – they’re there to find out about news a few minutes ahead of anywhere else. The old joke that you watch Sky News to find out what’s breaking, and then turn over to the BBC to find out if it’s actually true, is terribly unfair to the journalists behind Sky’s editorial and fact-checking processes – but it is also a fairly accurate description of how a lot of people behave.
So it’s not entirely unreasonable that Sky might want to control its journalists’ Twitter output in some way. At the time of writing, neither Sky nor any of their journalists have commented on the new rules, so there’s still a lot of ambiguity over how they will be applied. With that in mind, here’s five things I think Sky News could do that would downgrade its approach from “brain-fryingly incomprehensible” to “mildly baffling”:
1. Clarify what accounts will be affected
The Guardian story says that the new rules apply to “professional accounts” – and thus, presumably, not to personal accounts (and it’s hard to see how Sky could expect to police that). But Sky really need to clarify this further; on Twitter, that distinction isn’t a black-and-white issue. Does it just mean to accounts that explicitly have the Sky branding – e.g. with “Sky” in the username, or the Sky logo in the avatar or background? Does it mean anybody who openly identifies themselves as a Sky News employee? Does it mean anybody who could be identified as a Sky News employee, even if they don’t explicitly say it? This matters – Sky’s Neal Mann, aka @fieldproducer, is a big figure in the UK journotwittosphere, to the extent that a hefty proportion of the reactions to this news were essentially wondering if a Neal Mann-shaped hole had just been left in the wall of Sky’s HQ. His account falls into the second category – it’s clearly a part professional, part personal account, where he explicitly identifies himself as a Sky employee, but without any Sky branding. Does he have to follow the rules? What about the large percentage of Sky staffers who are freelancers (as sometime Sky freelancer Dave Lee asked)?
I expect Sky will clarify the rules to say that it only applies to explicitly Sky-branded accounts (and that Sky reporters will be given a chance to change their accounts to remove the Sky branding if they wish to carry on tweeting as before). Anything else would be needlessly draconian, and would completely miss the positive effect that staff personal accounts have on humanising an organisation.
2. Have it only apply to breaking news
Given that the rationale for this move has to lie with the importance of both getting scoops, and fact-checking news, Sky would do well to explicitly restrict it to that area. There’s a fair argument for making sure that news coming from Sky-branded Twitter accounts has gone through the same editorial checks that news coming from any other Sky-branded news platform would do. Likewise, it makes a certain kind of sense to stop reporters on official Sky accounts from straying into news areas that aren’t their beat, just as you wouldn’t expect your chief football writer to file a 1200-word review of the Lana Del Rey album* in lieu of a match report from the Reebok Stadium. But it makes no sense to apply it to anything else – if a Sky News journalist wants to retweet another journalist’s interesting analysis, or a good joke, or a link to the genuinely brilliant Rats In Hats Tumblr, then why on earth stop them? Once again, humanising = good.
3. Get serious about giving credit
Regrettably, Sky already has a bit of a dodgy reputation when it comes to crediting the work of other journalists, thanks to their habit of having ticker items (and, indeed, tweets) prominently ascribe news that was already broken by someone else to “Sky sources”. In their defence, they say people have misunderstood what they mean by this: it’s not that they’re claiming to have broken the news, just that they’re saying they have independently confirmed it with their own sources. Which is fine, as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t quite match up to how many other organisations use that form of words. But the “no retweets of rivals journalists” policy pushes it into a territory where, once again, it might start to look like an organisation that’s trying to mislead its audience about how many stories it breaks compared to its rivals. It may seem like a small thing – journalists fretting over bruised egos at not getting credit, added to the Twitterati’s mad obsession with getting a tweet out seconds before someone else – but if they want to avoid accusations of dishonesty, Sky will need to work out robust and transparent ways of clearly acknowledging that a scoop isn’t theirs.
4. Acknowledge that exceptions must be allowed
During the UK riots in August last year, Sky News’s journalists were extremely prominent on Twitter, helping to report, fact-check and amplify useful (indeed, potentially life-saving) information. They were outstanding, and I suspect they did a huge amount to improve the reputation of the station in the minds of a lot of people. The Guardian’s Reading The Riots analysis of how Twitter was used during the unrest showed how professional journalists – both breaking news and retweeting others – played an important role in stopping false rumours from spreading and getting good information to those who needed it (it’s worth noting that at least four Sky News journalists, as well as a several centrally-controlled Sky accounts, were among the most retweeted users during that time). There are times when the public service aspect of journalism – even in news organisations that don’t have an explicit public service remit – has to take precedence over everything else. And there are times when a story gets too large, and too important, for any organisation to pretend its coverage can be comprehensive. These rules would utterly crush the potential for them to do that again.
5. Trust your journalists
Ultimately, a lot of this kind of palaver – micro-managing your employees’ social media accounts – comes down to how much you trust your staff. If you don’t think you can trust them not to tweet unverified information, or to produce interesting output related to their beat, then these kind of rules make sense. If you don’t think they can understand the norms and practises of social media, then you don’t let them try (it’s notable that Mann, Sky’s Digital News Editor and one of the UK’s top experts on the intersection of news and social media, said that he “didn’t take part in the discussions” that led to the policy). But I honestly don’t think Sky’s journalists are deserving of that lack of trust, and I don’t think this will magically make them better reporters, or Sky a better news channel. I think Sky’s staff are smart, talented and professional, and Sky should be celebrating that fact, rather than trying to hide them away behind a mountain of managerial dictats.
If Sky clarify those points and apply the guidelines as liberally as possible, then the new policy might at least make some sort of coherent sense – even if many would still see it as narrow-minded, short-sighted and rather Cnutish. But if they go in the opposite direction… well, that sound you hear is a thousand social media gurus preparing ten thousand slides for a hundred thousand presentations with Sky as their number one example of “old media not getting it”. And I think that’s a fate we all want to avoid.
*Though why you’d need 1200 words to say “it’s crap”, I’m not sure.
Update: Oh dear. Now the BBC’s getting roughly the same stick that Sky got, prompted by another Guardian story titled “Don’t break stories on Twitter, BBC journalists told”. I think this criticism is likely mistaken, though. It’s based around this blogpost written by Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ s social media editor, clearly in response to the Sky brouhaha. The key line that everyone seems to be picking up on is the final one:
“…we’ve been clear that our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”
But in interpreting this, everybody seems to be completely ignoring the directly preceding line:
“We’re fortunate to have a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts.”
I’m honestly not sure how you go from “the BBC have developed technology specifically to allow their reporters to break news on Twitter while keeping the newsdesk informed” to “don’t break stories on Twitter, BBC journalists told” – it doesn’t seem to me like there’s any ambiguity there. It’s just flat-out misleading. Chris Hamilton made this clear himself, in a slightly world-weary tweet:
— Chris Hamilton (@chrishams) February 8, 2012
Of course, there’s still an argument to be made that even simultaneously filing to Twitter and your newsdesk is now unnecessarily restrictive. But I think of all news organisations, the BBC is clearly the one where keeping your colleagues updated through centrally controlled mechanisms is of the most obvious importance. Even on large national newspapers, you can reasonably use Twitter as an ad hoc internal comms tool – teams are small enough for pretty much everybody to follow each other, and you only need to co-ordinate news awareness across a relatively limited number of platforms. The BBC, meanwhile, has several national TV stations, a global TV station, quite a few national radio stations, 48 regional and local radio stations, a global radio station broadcasting in 27 languages to several hundred million listeners, a website available in 32 different language editions… all run by a constantly shifting workforce thousands of staffers, casuals and freelancers. Oh, and a statutory duty to not mislead people. When news breaks, you really need to be able to let everybody know in a predictable and controllable way…