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Breaking tweets

Although it’s not clear who coined the term social media, it’s agreed that the current use of the phrase has probably been in existence since the 1990s. The term itself may be 20 years old by now, but platforms like Twitter and Facebook are still relatively new to the media industry. Media adoption of these very popular and widely used tools has not come without its hiccups.

Social media practice among news organizations has varied from aggressive implementation to a cautious approach. For some organizations like the Associated Press, tweeting news before it’s on the wire is prohibited. Others shrug and say, “C’est la vie.” As news organizations embrace social media use, strategies and methods are being considered – one of which is whether pre-tweeting (or Facebooking) is a prudent social media strategy.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Casey Grove has seen where pre-tweeting official story releases can get you, and it has shaped his social media approach. “We’ve benefitted from over-eager reporters that work for our competitors tweeting about breaking news (things we didn’t already know about) without having the whole story. There was a recent case where a local TV reporter tweeted about how employees at a Subway had apprehended a would-be robber. She sent that tweet out before they had a story posted, I jumped on it and got something up pretty quickly, and in effect, we scooped them on their own story. So I’m careful not to help our competition in the same way.”

On the other end of this argument is Paul Berry, social media manager for The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo. Journalists at the mid-sized daily take advantage of the real-time reporting capabilities of Twitter, with reporters live-tweeting events before filing a story. “For some, it can be used as a note-taking device. If we have breaking news, we will often post that something has happened with a note that the story is following. Social [media] has really facilitated real-time breaking news: we tell the audience what we know when we know it. Sometimes it’s just that we heard something on the scanner and are checking it out. Other times, we mention something we’re working on.”

The media’s use of social media is something of a catch-22. Take Occupy Wall Street for example, noted Marcus Messner, a professor of social media and multimedia communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. Although journalists are doing a great job reporting from the scene via social media, they are also giving scoops away not yet officially published or broadcast. “If the journalist is not scooping it on Twitter, then someone else is going to do it so they have do it [report] right from the scene,” he said.  “You don’t have to be a paid journalist to break news these days … You just have to use the right hash tag and you automatically get a huge following.” These factors make it so that journalists almost have to break news on Twitter and Facebook, he noted. Of course, if a journalist has a really exclusive scoop, then that can be saved for the main newscast or paper.

But deciding whether it’s worth it to tweet news or publish it first isn’t the only issue journalists should look out for. Messner noted that other unfavorable social media practices include unverified tweets, flooding your followers with news postings at the end of the day, and reporters not involved with the social media process. “With social media you are taking the audience into the reporting process. I think reporters need to be trained that it’s just a snapshot of the moment,” he said. “On social media, especially in Twitter, it’s hard to have this gate-keeping process. It’s all about training the reporters on exactly what they need to do in breaking news situations or breaking rumors or news that turns out to be false.”

Meanwhile, the term “breaking news” may eventually have to transform to fit this new era of social media. “Breaking tweets” perhaps?

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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