Here at News.me we’ve been looking at the best ways to get news to our users. One problem that we’ve been thinking about a lot is breaking news. What is breaking news in a world with 24-hour access to information? What kind of information should a breaking news update convey?
Yesterday morning, needless to say, gave us an amazing view into the mechanics of breaking news. We all woke up to the news that Moammar Qadaffi had been finally overthrown in his last stronghold in Sirte, Libya — and later discovered that he had been killed.
Several news organizations were covering the news as it happened. We were following the news on The New York Times’ Lede blog, The Guardian’s Middle East Live blog, Al-Jazeera, the AP, and of course, Twitter — specifically @BreakingNews, and @antderosa, social media editor for Reuters.
In an effort to learn how news organizations reacted to the chaotic storm of information in the first several hours after the attack on Sirte, I broke down the stream of content coming from liveblogs and Twitter. You can see the moments during which crucial decisions on coverage had to be made by reporters and editors as events unfolded.
The first news was that Sirte had fallen; AP, Reuters, CNN, and Al-Jazeera cited sources on the ground in Libya with firsthand knowledge of the takeover. At 5:05am EDT, the AP broke the news:
The Guardian cited the AP as their first source, then immediately sourced Reuters to confirm the AP’s report.
Al-Jazeera had their own witnesses on the ground:
When it was relatively clear that Sirte had fallen, which most news sources could independently confirm through their own reporters or through other news sites, reporters quickly moved on to the next big question: Where was Moammar Gaddafi?
How many different ways can you say “we don’t know?”
As far as I can tell Reuters was the first to publish knowledge of Gaddafi’s body, though they believed him to be wounded, not dead. (He may have been merely wounded at the time.)
With this early coverage, Reuters quickly established credibility in the ongoing story. Presumably they had a good source, because Reuters was covering the news of the body first — reporting a wounded Gaddafi and then reporting his death minutes later.
This Guardian snapshot of a ten minute window when unconfirmed reports were flying provides a good example of how much news organizations knew and yet how little they felt comfortable confirming. There are at least three different ways of saying “we don’t know” below.
The Race to Confirm
What kind of confirmation does a news organization need? Well, confirmation by an independent organization would have been a good start. Libya’s NTC was not a great source — after all, they stood to gain by Gaddafi’s death. So the next best source would be a third-party organization on the ground in Libya. There happened to be two: NATO and, of course, the United States.
As Reuters had news of the body first, they were the first to call NATO to ask about the body. NATO would not confirm.
Neither would the U.S. State Department.
Of course, there is one other way to confirm hard news — visual evidence. Reporters from Reuters and Al-Jazeera may have been calling government organizations, but they were also on the ground.
At 8:24am EDT The Guardian published a photo via Agente France Presse (a French-language newswire) allegedly taken from a cell phone showing a wounded Gaddafi. The photos are gruesome, so click through with caution.
AFP not only got the cell-phone photos, they also got the first photos of the location where Gaddafi was killed. It should be pointed out that these photos were out and circulating before NATO had even confirmed with the media that they had attacked Sirte Thursday morning — let alone that they had any information about Gaddafi’s death.
At this point, we start to see the story emerge on the New York Times homepage, with yet no mention of Gaddafi’s alleged death. With continuing coverage happening on their blog The Lede, the New York Times reserved the homepage for a different degree of accuracy.
Finally, at 10:20am EDT, five hours after their first report, AP confirmed Gaddafi’s death with Libyan and American officials.
After official confirmation, the New York Times finally updated their homepage to reflect what by then had become a fully vetted piece of information.
It’s not uncommon to hear about the threat that real-time distribution poses to ‘quality’ journalism. This isn’t anything new — speed has always been at odds with accuracy. When the telegraph emerged in the 19th century, journalists and readers struggled to locate that new equilibrium.
A new pattern of breaking news distribution and verification is emerging. Today we watched as an important piece of information transformed from Tweet, to live blog, to front page headline, ultimately culminating in a physical, permanent version set to arrive on newsstands the following morning. This transformation was accompanied by an ever increasing level of confirmation and fact-checking, and it represents the evolution of a trade-off between speed and accuracy that users and journalists alike are beginning to wrap their heads around.
So, what does it all mean? Different media lend themselves to different user expectations and different journalistic standards. With a more durable medium like a newspaper, information tends to have a lifetime of 24 hours. If a piece of information is published and can’t be taken back or amended for 24 hours, you better be sure that that information is correct. On the other hand, a more ephemeral medium like Twitter or a live blog is subject to a lower threshold for accuracy since errors can be remedied instantaneously. The New York Times homepage is probably somewhere in the middle - its visibility lends itself to a degree of permanence less than that of a newspaper but certainly greater than that of a live blog.
As we rethink what ‘breaking news’ means in a media landscape where reader demand for the distribution of important information tend towards now, we ought to pay close attention to the evolving norms around journalistic standards. Readers expect a certain level of accuracy on the homepage that is different than the level of accuracy on a live blog, which is again different from the level of accuracy expected from a staff member sitting in front of Tweetdeck. All three sources may stand behind a single, trusted brand, but each medium lends itself to meaningfully different reader expectations and journalistic standards - as they should.