Does the BBC’s use of Twitter meet its editorial guidelines?

The use of Twitter during Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ marked another step along the ever-changing road of media coverage of conflict zones. The BBC was of course no exception, with its correspondents on the ground using the medium of social media to reach its audiences around the world in real-time.

But it was not just those who follow ‘our man in Jerusalem or Gaza’ who got news updates straight from Twitter. The BBC also made use of its correspondents’ Tweets as material for updates and articles. 

Here is a screenshot of one of the BBC News website’s Middle East pages whilst the site was running live updates throughout Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’. As you can see, those updates included ‘raw’ Tweets from BBC correspondents on the ground. 

Another example of the way in which the BBC made use of its correspondent’s Twitter activity is this article – made up entirely of Tweets by Paul Danahar of the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau.

So the BBC obviously considers its correspondents’ Twitter accounts an appropriate source of information suitable for dissemination to wider audiences. But that raises several issues which the BBC does not seem to have entirely thought through.

As we mentioned in this article, a contributor recently informed us that:

“The BBC (Audience Services) has confirmed to me that their complaints procedure can be used on tweets by BBC journalists and presenters on their BBC Twitter pages.”

That presumably means that the Twitter accounts of BBC journalists and presenters are subject to the same Editorial Guidelines as the rest of BBC-produced content, seeing as the basis for complaints is a perceived breach of one or more of those Guidelines. Certainly, according to those same guidelines, any material gathered for use in a BBC programme or article – whether sourced from Twitter or not – should comply with editorial standards. 

And yet throughout Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ we saw worrying issues of accuracy and impartiality arise  frequently on various BBC-linked Twitter accounts  – particularly when journalists were rather ‘trigger happy’; rushing to send out information which had not been properly verified, often from unreliable sources – with Jon Donnison’s distribution of a photograph taken in Syria as though it were from Gaza now being  the most well-known example. 

Example of lack of accuracy (several of the Palestinian casualties were terrorists):

Examples of badly sourced information:

Example of lack of accuracy (Israel did not target journalists in Gaza, but journalists in Gaza were used as human shields by terrorists):

Example of lack of accuracy and impartiality (No Israeli warships fired ‘randomly’):

Example of lack of impartiality and accuracy (at least 7 of the dead were known to be terror operatives):

Example of lack of accuracy (Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital):

In some cases – but far from all – corrections were later put out or apologies made. But of course the very nature of Twitter means that corrections are not guaranteed to reach everyone who read – and believed – erroneous information put out by such a trusted source as a BBC journalist or an official BBC account, especially if that information came their way via a retweet from a third party. 

In this new environment in which often unverified and improperly sourced information is reaching audiences either directly from the Twitter accounts of BBC journalists or via BBC articles based on those Tweets, there is an obvious need for the BBC to invest in some serious thinking as to how its employees’ Twitter feeds can comply with its existing editorial standards of accuracy and impartiality.  

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