This poses a dilemma for established news organisations that traditionally have been the ones to break news. But as Mindy McAdams notes, “breaking news — especially disasters and attacks in the middle of a city — will be covered first by non-journalists.”
In response, the mainstream media has sought to incorporate Twitter into its output. The BBC has been trialing a live updates page that brings together both professional and amateur content.
The aim of this approach is to:
Provide news, analysis, description and comment in short snippets as soon as it becomes available. It is a running account, where we are making quick judgments on and selecting what look like the most relevant and informative bits of information as they come in, rather than providing the more considered version of events we are able to give in our main news stories of the day.
This marks a significant departure from established practices, particularly at an institution like the BBC that prided itself on verifying information before publishing it.
The editor of the BBC News website, Steve Herrmann, explains the corporation’s thinking in a thoughtful post on the BBC Editors blog. He acknowledges there are risks with running accounts that the BBC has not been able to check, admitting that “we’re still finding out how best to process and relay such information in a fast-moving account like this.”
But he also indicates that the established approach of verifying first and then publishing is changing.
On a major unfolding story there is a case also for simply monitoring, selecting and passing on the information we are getting as quickly as we can, on the basis that many people will want to know what we know and what we are still finding out, as soon as we can tell them.
In this digital world of breaking news, the role of the journalist is no longer just about assessing information before publication. Instead there is a role in selecting and linking to emerging information, labelling it as coming from Twitter or some other source. Herrmann explains that evaluating the nature of this information “is left to you.”
This doesn’t mean that journalists won’t still produce the traditional news story, with what Herrmann calls “the most definitive and authoritative version of events we have, as established by our own correspondents and newsgathering teams who are there.”
But he appears to be suggesting that the BBC, one of the world’s most trusted news organisation, is prepared to publish unfiltered and unverified information on its site, leaving it to the audience to decide on its authenticity.
This marks a significant shift from established journalistic practices, as it expects the audience to take an active role in the filtering of news.
It has provoked a lively discussion on the blog post, with comments such as “on its news website, the BBC must not be allowed to use unverifiable information at all” and “it’s unacceptable to use it in the manner you have in major news stories.”
The comment reflect the tension as journalistic practices adapt to a new digital environment and as the mainstream media seeks to find ways of providing a valuable service for audiences.