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News organizations are getting hip to social media. For many of them, figuring out how to use social media hasn't been easy, but a growing number of them have seen the light and realize that social media platforms can serve as valuable tools for journalism.

But should news organizations require that their journalists use, say, Twitter and Facebook? The director of BBC Global News, Peter Horrocks, apparently thinks so.

According to the Guardian's Mercedes Bunz, Horrocks has announced that social media is no longer an option for BBC journalists. She writes:

BBC news journalists have been told to use social media as a primary source of information by Peter Horrocks, the new director of BBC Global News who took over last week. He said it was important for editorial staff to make better use of social media and become more collaborative in producing stories.

"This isn't just a kind of fad from someone who's an enthusiast of technology. I'm afraid you're not doing your job if you can't do those things. It's not discretionary", he is quoted as saying in the BBC in-house weekly Ariel.

As part of this, BBC news editors will reportedly be expected to use Twitter and RSS readers, and their "assignment" will involve "aggregating and curating content with attribution" and engaging through social media.

While Horrocks will certainly win praise from social media proponents with his approach, I'd argue it's just as radical as those who might shun social media altogether on opposite but similarly ideological grounds. In my opinion, journalists should use the tools they need to report the news. Period. Sometimes those tools will include social media, but sometimes they won't. Obviously, journalists who ignore social media altogether are probably a dying breed, but the notion that journalists be given a mandate to aggregate and curate content from a particular source just because that source is trendy doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

At the end of the day, journalists are paid to report information, typically with some degree of commercially reasonable accuracy I might add. To do the job, they need to use a wide range of tools. By mandating that his journalists use Twitter and RSS readers, for example, Horrocks is essentially acting like a future homeowner who tells the construction company the specific tools it needs to use in the construction of his new house. To make the point about how silly this is, one commenter joked, "Coming next: use of eyes and ears now optional, says BBC Producers' Guidelines..."

For obvious reasons, journalistic micromanagement is foolish and shortsighted. There is no doubt that social media is a valuable tool for journalists. Journalists who aren't comfortable with social media should probably do what it takes to change that ASAP. But social media, like any tool, is a means to an end. It leaves a lot to be desired when relied on too heavily, and has been the cause of some embarrassing errors.

For the BBC, the risk of over-reliance on social media doesn't stop at information accuracy. There are a lot of important stories out there that you won't discover on Twitter and Facebook. Journalists literally have to go out and dig some of them up or they'll never be discovered at all. Additionally, journalists tuned into social media channels need to be cognizant of the fact that a relatively small number of users produce the majority of the content.

Horrocks is technically correct when he says that social media "provides journalists with a wider range of opinion, and gives them access to a whole range of voices", but he also seems to be ignoring the huge audience bias that exists. By indulging too much in social media, the BBC risks coming down with a social media-driven form of myopia in which the information the BBC aggregates and curates reflects perspectives obtained from audiences that are skewed demographically, socioeconomically and geographically.

Hopefully, the BBC will come to its senses and ditch mandates related to the tools journalists use. News organizations like the BBC need to adopt new technologies and they should be actively monitoring and using social channels, but I think they'll find that the quality and marketability of their product isn't going to increase when journalists spend half the day in front of a computer watching the tweets stream in because their boss told them it was a job requirement.

Photo credit: webtreats via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 11 February, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Tom Nixon

I agree with the logic behind making social media an essential part of the journalist's job. It's inevitable. But forced participation doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the medium does it? What might work better is for the BBC and other news organisations to work with their journalists and audience to redefine what news means now that social technologies are so widespread. It's time to question basic assumptions like "At the end of the day, journalists are paid to report information" which I'm sure remains largely true, but isn't the full story any more. I expect that together they would come to similar conclusions, but adoption is likely to be so much easier if they go on this journey together, not have it enforced from above.

over 6 years ago

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Sam

I don't see this being a mandate as such. He's not saying that journalists have to use social media for every story, but merely that it cannot be ignored. It's no longer an excuse for a journalist to "not get" twitter or social media. It isn't a fad, it's here to stay, in whatever form it chooses to evolve.

over 6 years ago

Sanjit Chudha

Sanjit Chudha, Integrated Marketing & Communications Consultant at Personal

In my view, social media is part of the toolkit that journalists and publishers, digital or otherwise, need to be cognizant of and famillar with.   In no way can social media replace objective and accurate reportage.   It can help make news, especially rolling/real-time news more responsive to real events.   Witness, for example, the use of Twitter and YouTube in Iran and Burma.   The job for journalists and publishers is to state the facts and provide the analysis and background that consumers need to assimilate the information and reach their own judgements.

Mandating the use of social media is somewhat heavy handed, but perhaps that is what the BBC, like many other media organisations, needs to do in order to get journalists to appreciate the potetial value that it brings.

over 6 years ago

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Simon Partington

Have to agree with you wholeheartedly there Tom. Listening to a presentation from a BBC exec producer recently on how they are integrating social media into their newsroom, it struck me that there wasnt a whole lot of substance to their approach - a lot of talk, but not much walk.

The beauty of social platforms is their uniqueness to each and every user. Finding your niche and realising the ways in which you like to comment, be contacted and monitor the social web is a process, and not something that can be enforced on journalists, as Tom rightly asserted.

The BBC needs to integrate social media in an organic manner, not through a police state. 

over 6 years ago

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Andy Field

"primary source of information" - not sure where that comes from, sounds like a journalistic add on. Yes, embrace the technology and tools but attribution and trust is key.

over 6 years ago

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Craig Hepburn

Some great comments and a very interesting and to be expected controversial announcement by the BBC but i have recently realised something we all tend to forget. The term "Social Media" has been hyped up to be some radical new thing that we all need to wrestle with or figure out and i will be the first to admit i tend to do this also, but the truth is - its not. Lets take a step back and look at this holistically - people have been drawn into groups or networks of other people around a common interest, its a natural instinct. When the web came along we decided to put up information in a disconnected static way that could only be found by navigation or search. Social Networks have enabled people now to connect digitally and more importantly amplify our thoughts and common interests. Social Media is just content and information that people can share easily through a connected network, it also enables people to publish their thoughts or beliefs to anyone interested in listening around that connected network of people - but hang on a second is that not just what we have been doing since time began way before the PC or web was ever around? 

So my point being Journalists are human (well most of them are i think ;-0) and they have always used connected networks of contacts in the offline world to get inside scoops or stories to gather the facts or opinions - journalists you could even say have been the worlds best social networkers for decades and even in the offline world people are biased or try to influence opinion but this is done behind closed doors or in secret with no transparency so my feeling is that there is actually a much stronger chance of collecting accurate, topical or relevant information through social media because this provides a transparent medium that can be openly referenced. Look at Wikipedia for example this is a social media platform that provides incredibly accurate and relevant information by people attracted by a common theme or interest.

So i think as Patricio and others have mentioned social media is just another method of collecting views, opinions or facts and journalist would not be doing their job if they were to ignore any communication channels available to them in context of a story or editorial opinion. 

I do however completely agree with Tom that any authoritative top down approach to enforce this way of reporting will only cause push back and resentment to the "social media" communication beast we are wrestling with ;-)

over 6 years ago

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Tom Loosemore

Where does Horrocks say he is mandating the use of social media in reporting for every piece of BBC journalism'?

I read his comments as 'learn how to add social media to your box of journalistic tools, or else'. 

He's mandating journalists learn to use social media as a tool. How *and* when. Fair enough.

Despite resigning from the NUJ several years ago, I still get emails from the branch in Bush House. Let's just say that I can understand why Horrocks felt he needed to give an unequivocal message if some of his journalists are willfully refusing to learn how to use new tools.

over 6 years ago

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Matthew

Social media provides an excellent tool to capture what's going on in the world now. While I agree with many points above, it seems that the average person has now become a reporter. My TV news watching has substantially dropped, as I can find out what's going on anywhere from those immersed in the situation. I personally think it's a more trustworthy way to find info as well, as major news networks typically have their slants.

over 6 years ago

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