Sky News, trust your journalists with Twitter

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Sky News has come under immense criticism after it was reported that it had banned all employees re-tweeting information provided by rival journalists and the general public. In an email issued to all employees on Tuesday, the news organisation stated that in order to maintain its credibility, new social media guidelines had been put into place.

In the policy, journalists are no longer permitted to re-tweet stories which originate outside the organisation, nor are they allowed to comment on stories which fall outside of their “beat”. This, according to the email, will “ensure that our journalism is joined up across platforms, there is sufficient editorial control of stories reported by Sky News journalists and that the news desks remain the hub for information going out on all our stories.”

Some could argue that this is a valid approach in fighting irresponsible journalism – we know that the British press is still reeling from the recent phone hacking scandal – but realistically this seems rather reactive than proactive. As was recently reported on Memeburn, there are a number of ways in which to verify tweets; and none of these methods involve insular gate-keeping. Instead, it is suggested to do what journalists are trained to do: check your sources, double-check the facts and follow the leads. Surely, Sky News is not suggesting that its journalists are badly trained?

The sad truth, it seems, is that Sky News appears to be building on an ugly cultural phenomenon permeating the Web: restricted control. And while it makes sense to be cautious of using tweets made by the general public, it can also add great insight and emotion to a story, especially if, like in the case of the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the London bombings in 2005, a journalist is physically unable to visit the scene. As researchers, such as Jane Singer and Stuart Allan have proven, journalism is no longer about objectivity and detached reporting, it has become about including the subjectivities of the public.

Purists may argue differently, but even if the views of the public are sidelined, it is still somewhat ludicrous to restrict journalists sharing information amongst themselves. Perhaps when journalism was still concerned with old school on-the-beat reporting it was detrimental to share information — getting the “scoop” was what made a journalist great — but the news industry has changed. Consumers are faced with a myriad of choices, and don’t really care which organisation broke the story first. They do care however, which organisations give them the most insight and depth as news unfolds. So if Sky News restricts the amount of depth which their journalists are allowed to provide, it ultimately undermines the experience demanded by consumers.

The implementation of this policy is an archaic step back into an age of competitive journalism, in which the success of a journalist is measured by their ability to “break” a story. The problem for Sky News is that nobody else got the memo. All other news organisations still continue to share information and develop stories based on public experience, and that means that Sky’s policy firstly, slows their news down and secondly, deviates from the wants of the audience. Ultimately, it makes them less competitive. Even if every other corporate news organisation folds under peer pressure and chooses to follow the same path as Sky News, they are still competing with bloggers, citizen journalists and general social media gossip. Ironically, this hands control back to a public whose tweets they have been so quick to dismiss as implausible.

Social media has changed news, and in some regard, changed the role of traditional gate-keepers, like news desks and editors. This doesn’t mean that journalists should be restricted, because overall their fundamental ethics have not changed. In fact, more responsibility rests on the journalist, and they need to protect their individual reputation, as well as their employer, by ensuring that their tweets are as accurate as possible. Social media may have taken aspects of control away from traditional news organisations and placed it in the hands of journalists, but if organisations, like Sky News, attempt to maintain their dominance by restricting journalistic Twitter practice, they run the risk of losing all control to the general gossip of social media.

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