The Pros and Cons of Breaking News on Social Media

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Social media isn’t just for keeping up with friends and family, and it isn’t just for marketing. Social media is often the point from which breaking news stories emerge. If you are an online news publisher, you may have mixed feelings about breaking news over social media vs. breaking it to your paid subscribers.

Determining which stories to break over social media and which to break to your subscribers presents an interesting tension: you want to publish news promptly, but you want to avoid mistakes that can compromise innocent people and possibly expose you to legal problems.

SEE ALSO: Social Media Guidelines for Breaking News

The truth is, even major news organizations are still figuring out how to use social media in breaking news situations. Firsthand reports from eyewitnesses and those experiencing a situation can be extremely valuable. But when these accounts are picked up and run with, they can lead to disastrous consequences, like when the wrong person is singled out as the perpetrator of a serious crime. Here’s what you should know so you can make more informed decisions about when and how to break news over social media.

How People Get News from Social Media

As print continues its decline, social media sites are an important way for news organizations reach readers. Social media sites, in turn, enjoy the attention these breaking stories bring. It’s a dance that is in the process of being choreographed with every major breaking story. Facebook, since it’s the world’s biggest social network, is the social network where Americans are most likely to happen upon news. Sixty-four percent of adults in the US use Facebook every month, and about half of those users read news there.

But Twitter draws both on huge popularity and a high percentage of users seeking news, and is the leader among the 18 to 29 age bracket. In that age range, 45% of US Twitter users use Twitter for news. When you look at the under-50 age group, around 83% turn to Twitter for news consumption, beating Facebook by 10 percentage points.

Tweets that Made Twitter Important for Breaking News

Many major news stories have broken on Twitter, from celebrity stories (Prince William’s engagement in 2010, the death of Whitney Houston in 2012) to hard geo-political stories (the Tweet about the helicopter over Abbottabad that unknowingly heralded the capture of Osama Bin Laden). In general, the most newsworthy Tweets are the ones that are made by someone experiencing an event, or an eyewitness. Re-Tweets or secondhand Tweets can lead to misleading and possibly dangerous misinformation in the rush to capitalize on breaking stories.

More information isn’t necessarily better, particularly when it consists of unsubstantiated second- or third-hand accounts. Bad outcomes can include libel and loss of reputation for irresponsible news publishers. But waiting to verify stories and sources can result in a news source being dismissed as slow and behind the times. What should you as a news publisher do to gain the respect of reporting news early while avoiding misinformation and upsetting subscribers who (understandably) may think they deserve to find out first?

Suggestions on What to Do

First, look at the story itself. Is it big enough to justify the risks of putting an unsourced news item on social media? Does the story involve something important enough – say imminent loss of life or a governmental coup – that the risks are worthwhile? If not, you have to ask yourself what you hope to gain from breaking the story on social media.

Do you have contact with an on-the-ground eyewitness or someone who is experiencing the situation as it unfolds? Firsthand accounts can be suitable for breaking on social media, but you need to verify that person’s credibility first. Not doing so could end up contributing to a long-term debacle that harms people.

Social Media

If you have someone on the ground reporting firsthand, social media may be appropriate for breaking a story.

Tweeting names or photos of, for example, possible suspects in a major crime story before verifying them is a dangerous practice. The words you may pick up from a police scanner in the heat of a breaking story should not be considered as verified information. Getting a scoop is not worth exposing your news organization to libel.

Consider breaking news to your subscribers yet still participating in social media by using it for different purposes. For example, you can break the news story as it develops to your subscribers while using social media to direct people to sources like police department feeds, or live streaming coverage.

Realize that sometimes you have to sit back and wait, and you can’t always get a big scoop. In fact, a “scoop” doesn’t really mean what it did in the print era. Sometimes correct information simply takes time, and you’re better following up the story than trying to be first to get it on social media.

If your organization is still learning the role of social media in breaking news, you’re not alone. Even worldwide news organizations are going through the same thing. Nonetheless, it’s important to have a plan to minimize risk and maximize the chance of breaking a story in a way that serves readers and bolsters your reputation and brand.

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