News companies now routinely use Twitter to publish breaking stories, often before those stories have made it onto websites or even the rolling news channels.
These breaking news accounts such as BBCBreaking or SkyNewsBreak are usually controlled by journalists rather than automated bots, because real people can use their expertise to condense events into pithy, readable and accurate tweets. However, in the rush to break news ahead of the competition, real people can make mistakes too.
Although not a breaking news tweet as such, the one above from Sky News caught my eye recently. It confused child murderer Robert Black with the former athlete Roger Black, and inadvertently linked the ex-400m runner with a series of unsolved crimes. After I and others pointed out the error the tweet was soon deleted. Although it was retweeted a few times, it wasn’t exactly broadcast widely, so it was more mildly embarrassing for Sky News than legally serious. But it shows how easily blunders can happen when one person is under pressure to deliver tweets quickly, and those are published without being checked.
I know a bit about this sort of thing. In a past life I was a text producer at Sky News, between 2002 and 2004. That involved putting breaking news graphics directly onto the channel, although instead of 140 characters I had about seven or eight words to play with.
Here’s an example of my work, taken from the night of the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Baghdad near the start of the Iraq War in 2003:
Sometimes text straps could and can be used to add extra information to what the viewer can see on the screen, although I’d accept “Large Explosions In Baghdad” (at 1:06) was rather unnecessary in this case.
Being a text producer is similar to controlling a breaking news Twitter feed. Your job is to distil stories into as few words as possible, in a fast and accurate way, while under pressure. There’s the time pressure from your bosses to get it done ahead of rivals, and the pressure of turning often-complex stories into brief snippets without changing the meaning, all the while making sure you don’t do a typo. Nobody else looks at your stuff before it goes on air because it would take too long, so you’d better make sure you get it right.
I became a textprod straight out of university, and in those days Sky would usually employ graduates to do the job, presumably because it was then a completely new area of TV news and management assumed more experienced journalists would baulk at it.
One thing I quickly noticed was that whenever a new textprod joined, the most important factor in whether they’d prove to be a success was not their experience, or which journalism course they’d done, but their temperament. Talented young journalists sometimes failed because they found the unusual pressures of the job too much, and did bad work (notorious errors included Somerset mis-spelt as ‘Summerset’). Others with less obvious pedigree thrived, not least because they could concentrate for hours at a time in the Sky News gallery, and could take a bollocking when things went wrong.
I imagine the Black mistake was laughed off in the newsroom, and filed under Sky’s unofficial motto of ‘never wrong for long’. But the danger posed by a mistaken tweet is arguably greater than that from an errant TV graphic. A Twitter blunder can be shared and reproduced quickly, and can be saved and seen long after a brief error on rolling news has been long forgotten about.
Those in charge of breaking news Twitter feeds would do well to bear that in mind. And to make sure the journalists they put in control have got the right temperament for the task. The next mistake could always be a lot worse than the last one.