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15th May 2017

Breaking news – and fixing it


Through the night hours in a BBC newsroom, the gallery screens never sleep.

Asia markets resurrect Bloomberg tickers, a distant vacuum hums, there’s the purr of a printer and in New York, Shang Hai and London it’s 20 minutes before the next top-of-the-hour. An engineer is slumped across the sound desk – a polystyrene cup out of harm’s way; the vision mixer, cocooned in a fleece and director’s swivel chair, stirs in a shiver of aircon.

The next running order, the same as the last, appears as my monitor awakes in a green fuzz at 2.45am. In a BBC World studio, before news was online, my common default on a slow shift was scanning the newswires.

‘……TWA airliner down over Atlantic’ was like a fuse wire from Reuters. I glanced through the dividing window for signs of life… an editor – and piped up on talk-back, since I had spotted it first.
Reuters was the definitive agency source, so little more was required. Producers sparked into action. The general rule was two-source confirmation to break a story on air, and it was only moments before the second. The 03:00 headline script confirmed: TWA 800 down off US Atlantic coast. Eyewitness: ‘It exploded’.

So-called ‘rolling news’ came of age with CNN’s unprecedented coverage of the Gulf War. For the BBC, ever resourceful, its 24/7 news-cycle was born in little more than a broom cupboard.
The good, the bad and the medley: how things have changed – evolved – from bulletins to Twitter-feeds. Or have they…?

CNN, its own eyewitness in the al-Rashid Hotel, Baghdad, had only to look out of the window. More than 25-years-on, the phone is smarter than the sword – and a window for everyone. News is still all about being first. And being accurate.

In Paris a gunman opens fire on the Champs-Elysees. I learn this from Sky News. They know it from Twitter activity, stringer phone calls and news agency wires. AFP has ‘sources’ – eyewitnesses – friends of eyewitnesses, Twitter followers of friends – so we’re probably OK with ‘sources’ in what’s a muddle-soup of news.

The facts surface in initial reactions – both an asset and hindrance to newsgathering – and AFP tweets that the incident is a robbery. The line is important because producers must quickly decipher the known fragments of story to gauge the greater news value; important because agencies are verified sources. It’s important because a police officer is dead.

‘Two police officers’ are dead, so tweets @PrisonPlanet, an online news source. Sky News briefly flashes the line soon after: ‘AFP – policeman killed in Paris robbery’.

AFP is fast to realise its mistake: ‘#CORRECTION @AFP has not confirmed that the shooter was a robber. We will delete our earlier tweet’. But not before dozens of re-tweets. Then follows: ‘You people delete a lot of tweets for a news service’ and ‘There's a reason people don't trust you, & resort to following “fake news”’.

Others are ‘glad attack was foiled’, replying to @PrisonPlanet: ‘Sorry to see 2 police dead...’ and: ‘If this is true you're so much quicker than French news sources themselves. I see nothing on live TV on this for now.

The Champs-Elysees is jammed with armed response units and TV vehicles.

In the context of a shipping casualty viewed from the shore, social media jumps on the back of any line. Being first and being followed is all-important. Being right, as a spokesperson, is as critical.        

It’s a tough call for news editors. I’m not dissing AFP, among the best of news agencies, when a Twitter-feed is as good as a wire service. For CEOs the lesson learnt is the same: correction at source; not to fuel the narrative with inaccuracies.

Mistakes are errors in the moment, something misheard on the street – from the bridge. Unintentional. The smart thing is to realise it and fix it. 
For a few minutes more… we’ve a chance of discerning between the first, the fast and the fake. Something to consider as a finger hovers over share, post or re-tweet – when the screens never sleep.


Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8466

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