Sky News and Twitter: Do news organisations trust their journalists?

With all the hullabaloo about Sky News’ new draconian Twitter policy, I am actually more interested in the why rather than the policy as it was reported by The Guardian.

  • No retweets of rival journalists or “people on Twitter”.
  • Stick to your own beat.
  • Don’t tweet about personal or non-professional subjects on their work accounts.

First off, “people on Twitter”? People on Twitter? This reminds me of the old debate we had about quoting bloggers years ago. Yes, a lot of blogs were personal musings, but experts blog about topics including the US Supreme Court, arms control and volcanoes, important if a volcano in Iceland shuts down your airspace. People on Twitter include US President Barack Obama (although usually a member of staff. Tweets from the president end with BO.), the Secretary General of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Noriyuki Shikata, a Japanese cabinet spokesman tweeting in English, providing at least the official view of what was happening at the stricken nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

A good journalist, such as Sky News’ digital news editor, Neal Mann, builds up a network of verified sources using Twitter just as any journalist does with more traditional sources. I follow more than 700 people on Twitter, and I can tell you sourcing information about almost all of them. Any journalist worth their salt knows the sources on their beat, and for savvy journalists like Neal, Twitter is just an extension of those sources.

Why would a news organisation do this in 2012? I can understand that they want to make sure that tweets by their journalists aren’t completely outside of their editorial process, but they shouldn’t be. What even precipitated this? This question is especially important when their digital news editor, Neal Mann, is the kind of exemplar of how a journalist should use Twitter.

When the Washington Post had a bit of a Twitter clampdown in 2009, it came after a bit a controversy with personal comments from then digital and feature managing editor Raju Narisetti. The Associated Press revised its Twitter policy last year specifically to address the issue of retweeting to include:

Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying.

And much as with Sky News’ policy, the AP says in its full policy (available in PDF form by the link above):

Don’t break news that we haven’t published, no matter the format.

Last week, I chaired a social media and journalism panel at’s News Rewired conference that included Neal;  Katherine Haddon, head of online with English, AFP; Tom McArthur, UK editor of; and Laura Kuenssberg, business editor with ITV News. Laura summed up Twitter best practice succinctly:

If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it.

Certainly there are some specific considerations for social networks, but frankly, this sums it up. If you can’t trust someone on social media, how can you trust them on air, on your site? There should be one standard of journalism regardless of the platform. Rather than clamping down on Twitter, why don’t news organisations incorporate tweets from their journalists more effectively? The Guardian does this quite effectively on its site. Why don’t broadcast news organisations selectively incorporate tweets from their correspondents in the on-screen crawl or ticker?

Fundamentally, this is down to trust. At The Guardian, when I was blogs editor, we allowed some journalists to publish their own blog posts directly to the site. With live blogging, you have to have trust in the blogger. It was a privilege earned by writers who produced clean copy quickly.

Instead of such self-defeating policies, why not train the staff and when they have proven themselves, then their Twitter accounts are incorporated directly in the site. You can also have it so that tweets only appear on the site when a special hashtag is used. There are so many practical, smart ways to deal with this rather than the retrograde repression that Sky News has chosen. When things like this happen, it says volumes about who is in charge and how little they trust their own staff.

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