Every editor should know how a bill becomes a law — but no editor should assume every reader does. That’s why some of the breaking news tweets before and during the government shutdown were incomplete and potentially misleading.
I made this point before, after the Chelsea Manning verdict: We must choose completeness over succinctness when tweeting breaking news, especially if it’s complex breaking news that’s easily misunderstood.
First, let’s go back to Sept. 27, when the budget drama was heating up:
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) September 27, 2013
BREAKING: Senate passes bill to avert government shutdown, rejects defunding Obamacare.
— The Associated Press (@AP) September 27, 2013
Breaking: Senate approves bill funding government through mid-November after striking down health-law defunding. http://t.co/tYCeELTJqc
— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) September 27, 2013
I’m picking on the big guys here because they have the largest audiences and their tweets travel the farthest. The real story that day — and every day since, until Wednesday — was what House Republicans would agree to. Democrats in the Senate passing a budget bill meant little if it was dead on arrival in the GOP-led House, as the New York Times’ fantastic ongoing back-and-forth graphic showed throughout the shutdown.
So, the all-caps #BREAKING treatment perhaps made the Senate’s move seem more consequential than it really was, especially with wording that could be misconstrued as indicating the Senate’s vote actually meant the shutdown threat was over. Those three tweets weren’t factually wrong, but responses to them indicated at least some confusion from readers.
Keeping that danger in mind, I tweeted this for the Chicago Sun-Times:
Senate approves bill averting government shutdown. But the Senate and House still must compromise by Tuesday: http://t.co/UK1WzpO9az
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) September 27, 2013
Paragraph two in that AP story we ran at the Sun-Times website was the key: “The 54-44 vote, however, hardly spelled an end to Washington’s latest down-to-the-wire budget drama.” There’s enough room in a tweet to include something from stories’ crucial second-graf howevers.
Here’s a perfectly nuanced tweet from the folks at the New York Times, who naturally didn’t fear including a comma:
Breaking News: Senate Passes Budget Bill With Restored Health Funds, Setting Up Showdown With House http://t.co/lEhj48koug
— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 27, 2013
Now, flash forward to Wednesday, the 16th and final day of the shutdown:
BREAKING: Senate Democratic leader announces bipartisan deal to avoid default, reopen the government.
— The Associated Press (@AP) October 16, 2013
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) October 16, 2013
Call me a stickler for completeness, but I wanted more from these tweets, too. This Senate deal was a big one, and there was more reason for optimism in those early Wednesday tweets than there was a few weeks earlier. But at the time of those AP and Reuters tweets, Majority Leader John Boehner hadn’t made a statement on the House’s intentions, the Senate hadn’t even voted yet, and it wasn’t clear whether Sen. Ted Cruz was going to stand in the way of a vote. In other words: It wasn’t over yet.
While most news outlets followed their initial breaking news tweets of a Senate deal with details on what still needed to happen for the shutdown to end, there’s no reason not to offer context immediately, as CBS News did:
Senate reaches deal to end fiscal stalemate; eyes now turn to House to see if deal will pass http://t.co/nG4pvDoPmE
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 16, 2013
With 140 characters to work with, let’s not shy from commas, semicolons and buts.