Kudos to BBC News for thinking about how Twitter fits into breaking news coverage

Every so often a major news outlet like the AP or BBC News issues new guidelines about whether to break news on Twitter, and media blogs erupt with a simultaneous “Of course you should!”

Let’s move past the should/shouldn’t debate. Yes, Twitter is key to covering breaking news. But any digitally savvy journalist or news organization already knows that.

The bigger, more difficult question is how Twitter figures into breaking news coverage. This is part of a larger problem: Many newsrooms don’t have a comprehensive, chronological plan for how to respond to breaking news. The issue is editorial workflow, not platform ideology.

BBC News’ Chris Hamilton tries to convince other media watchers that BBC is not discouraging breaking news tweets.

Kudos to BBC News for trying to address that real issue. As social media editor Chris Hamilton explains, the new guidelines are not “telling BBC journalists not to break stories on Twitter.” Rather, the point is to share news with the BBC’s news desks and producers at least as quickly as it gets tweeted.

The new policy, he wrote, is “about making sure stories are broken as quickly and efficiently as possible to our large audiences on a wide range of platforms — Twitter, other social networks, our own website, continuous TV and radio news channels, TV and radio bulletins and programmes across several networks.”

Some may still disagree with that approach, but it’s not irrational. News organizations juggle a variety of platforms — Web, social, email, mobile, print and broadcast. They should be quick to tweet, of course, but also quick to do a lot of other things.

When I was working for the local D.C.-area news websites of TBD.com and WJLA.com, I came up with a breaking news workflow that I think worked for us. Here are the steps:

  1. File a quick news story for the website, perhaps just a sentence or two to get started.
  2. Tweet with a link to the story.
  3. Send a breaking news email alert, if warranted, with the link.
  4. Alert Web producers to the story’s availability for the home page and other featured spots.
  5. Update the story with more details and links to related information.
  6. Listen for the first wave of feedback through story comments and social media.
  7. Tweet again as updates are posted, and share to other social networks.

Each news organization’s workflow will depend on its priorities, its editing process and the personnel available. For instance, an organization may decide to tweet before it has something to link to because speed is the utmost priority.

But every organization needs to outline a process. Breaking news situations force journalists to move fast, and moving fast without a plan leads to mistakes and confusion.

It’s also important to remember that every story is different. Before a journalist even begins the publishing cycle I described above, she needs to evaluate the news. How “breaking” is it? What other staff might need to mobilize immediately? Are there complicated issues to discuss with an editor first?

That’s the productive discussion we should be having, rather than defaulting to “they just don’t get Twitter.”

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