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.