Every major breaking news events offers its lessons to the news organizations that covered it. And today’s death of singer Michael Jackson should lead newsrooms to reexamine how they handle breaking news in a hyper-competitive, instant-publishing environment.
I wrote last week about how news consumers used Twitter to express their displeasure, in real time and with a critical social mass, with CNN over the news network’s coverage of the developing election protests in Iran. Yesterday, Twitter again became the forum for a global event, as millions gathered on the microblogging site to share rumors about, then to confirm, then to mourn Jackson’s death.
AOL’s celebrity gossip site TMZ appeared to have been the first to report the singer’s death. Other news organizations, appropriately, waited to confirm Jackson’s passing themselves before reporting the news.
But thousands of Twitter users did not wait for additional confirmation before retweeting TMZ’s report, or sending out their own tweets about Jackson’s death. Even after the Los Angeles Times confirmed the passing, other news organizations held back before publishing the news to their Twitter feeds and e-mail alert lists.
Digital journalism leader Steve Buttry nailed the problem, appropriately enough, on his Twitter feed:
Should Washington Post and NY Times rebrand their news alerts as news “reminders”
This, after previous tweets:
Half hour or so after Twitter told me Michael Jackson died, Washington Post email alert caught up. Still waiting for NY Times “alert.”
@semayer & @conniecoyne The surprise isn’t that Twitter or TMZ are first, but the time lag between them and WaPo & NY Times “alerts.”
News organizations do not need to fall in line behind sources such as TMZ when a report like Jackson’s death breaks. The Twitterverse’s been wrong about alleged celebrity deaths before. But in this situation, smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting.
How hard would it be to tweet: “TMZ reports Jackson has died. We cannot confirm. Working on details”? Or “No confirmation on rumors about Jackson’s death. We’re in contact with authorities”?
The trouble is, of course, that it’s hard for the person making the calls to confirm the story to take time to tweet it. Or to update the website. Not to mention the site’s discussion forums, e-mail lists or Facebook page.
Which brings me to my first lesson from Jackson’s death:
In a breaking news situation, assign some to report and some to publish. But don’t ask anyone to do both.
Perhaps a few hyper-efficient bloggers can work the phones, monitor the Twitterverse, update social networks and write for the website… all at the same time. But newsrooms with multiple staffers on hand at any given moment shouldn’t have to rely on a single person to step up and assume the role of multimedia superstar. Large staffs (even diminished ones) remain traditional newsroom’s competitive advantage during breaking news. Why waste it?
Editors should divvy assignments, putting one staffer in charge of monitoring and updating Twitter, another to handle forums and Facebook, and others to work the phones or scene to report. The team must communicate clearly and continuously so that information flows swiftly and the paper’s readers and followers remain as up-to-date as anyone in the newsroom.
Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But, as Twitter showed today, traditional newsroom silence on rumors don’t make them go away. Engaging with the audience in these confusing moments helps establish to your readers that your news organization is plugged in, responsive and working for them. No, you shouldn’t be reporting unconfirmed reports as fact. (And I haven’t suggested that anyone should.) But the worst thing you can offer you readers on Twitter is silence. Report on your reporting, if that’s all you have. Readers will appreciate the transparency.
So let’s go to lesson number two, and something that readers will not appreciate:
It’s time to drop e-mail as a breaking news medium
E-mail remains a great way to communicate with readers who prefer that medium. Many readers love to get regular updates on what is available on a website, so that they can keep in touch no matter whether they’re able to check the site on their own or not. And e-mail’s also an excellent choice to let readers know about enterprise stories or other exclusives that the news organization is breaking.
But doing as Buttry described, and sending a “breaking news alert” hours after everyone from Helsinki to Honolulu has been tweeting the news just embarrasses the news organization. There’s no better way to reinforce the message, “Hi, just to remind you: We’re clueless and slow!”
Better not to send the e-mail at all. Twitter’s become the go-to medium for breaking news. It’s past time to retire the e-mail “breaking news” list for these kinds of minute-by-minute events. Leave e-mail as a follow-up to expose readers to truly unique reports and perspective, once you have them reported and available.