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The art of breaking news on social media

When the news broke about Osama bin Laden’s death, many reported hearing the news first through Twitter. And if it wasn’t Twitter, many heard through Facebook or a smartphone alert.

Breaking news over social media channels has become an avenue for not only individual tweeters to share what they know, but for news organizations to get the news out fast. News organizations, however, have a higher standard to live up to than the everyday person and are breaking news with caution.

“We generally try to make sure it is sourced no matter what before we send something out over social media,” said Erin Cubert, social media director at The Tennessean. For example, when reports came out that President Obama wasn’t going to release photos of bin Laden, The Tennessean held back breaking it until they could legitimately source the news. “There are a lot of rumor mongers. That’s why we’re very careful to make sure we don’t send something out that isn’t 100 percent.”

Scott Kleinberg, social media director and Web editor for Chicago’s RedEye was inclined to agree, noting that consumers of social media content also need to be aware that not everything they read is true. “Remember everything that you see online might not be vetted,” he said in an email interview. “There are people out there that want to fool people and you can’t just blanketly accept everything you see as fact. You use the information the same way you use information from traditional sources – carefully and you do your homework.”

And yet the benefits of being able to move quickly through the use of social media seem to outweigh the negatives for most news organizations.  “For newspapers it has completely changed the process. Waiting for your story to appear in the paper the following morning is hard enough, especially when a story breaks many hours before deadline. With social media, not only can we be relevant faster, but we can interact and engage with our audience at any time/from any place,” said Kleinberg.

Breaking news over social media also alerts readers so they can eventually follow a link back to the website and get the news. For The Tennessean, having social media as a tool during the Nashville flood in 2010 was especially helpful, noted Cubert. The paper used Facebook and Twitter, as well as worked with local bloggers to get information out to the public. “Social media was a driving force behind the Nashville flood at The Tennessean,” she said.

But although breaking news on social media seems a natural evolution, not all news organizations are on board with the concept. Romenesko recently posted Bloomberg News’ most recent social media guidelines that stated social media should not be used to break news: “We should not share work in progress or use social media as a vehicle for breaking news. As ever, news must always break first on the Bloomberg Terminal.”

In Marcus Messner’s opinion, creating guidelines that state against specifically breaking news over social media is the wrong way to go. An assistant professor teaching social media, multimedia journalism and global communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, Messner noted that while standards need to be upheld, news can still be broken efficiently through social media. “You don’t always have to report the entire story to be published on social media, but you have to report the facts,” he said. “So the storytelling is different.”

News organizations like the Huffington Post and Politico are doing a good job of breaking news on social media that has been verified and sourced beforehand, he noted. CNN also set a standard when the news of Osama bin Laden was first announced. Although tweets abounded in the Twitter spectrum, CNN didn’t break the news until it had confirmed the facts. “I think [social media] puts news organizations in a position under immense pressure to break the news because people are already talking about it,” Messner said. “Regular citizens and politicians can start talking, but news organizations can just not do that. They would put their credibility on the line if they got a story like this wrong.” Despite the downfalls that can be associated with breaking news over social media, Messner said that as soon as the facts are confirmed outlets need to be involved in social media.

And it’s not only news organizations that need to be onboard, but the journalists as well. “I think social media channels are actually a great way of branding for news organizations and personal branding for reporters,” he said. But the conversation happens with the journalists, he noted. “If you use it as a one-way channel and don’t answer to your audience, then what’s the point? I think the reporters that have the most followers and fans are the ones that truly engage with their audience.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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