Tweeting headlines for breaking news

Getting breaking news out quickly but also accurately has long been a key challenge for news journalism. Given the volume of news items that some news organisations publish on their Twitter feeds, and the time pressures involved — particularly for breaking news — it is perhaps surprising that more mistakes don’t occur.

This is one error that highlights what can go wrong — and also raises an issue about auto-tweeting published headlines. It came at the end of the trial (for fraud) of the former personal assistants of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. The Grillo sisters were found not guilty on 20 December 2013 — as the main Associated Press (AP) Twitter account accurately noted in its initial ‘BREAKING’ tweet.

Following up around 14 minutes later with a further tweet that linked to an AP story, however, it inadvertently cast Lawson and Saatchi as those cleared of fraud — in a case in which they had appeared only as witnesses (and they had not faced any charges):

The situation was particularly confusing because the story to which that inaccurate tweet linked was correct  — as the Twitter card preview showed (below). So although the wording from that headline would have made for a less effective tweet than the first ‘BREAKING’ tweet, it would have been accurate.

The mistake was corrected about 20 minutes later:

In general, news tweets work best when written specifically for the medium rather than simply replicating headlines written for a website story, say. But this is a counter-example in which tweeting the headline from the web version (as some accounts are set up to do automatically) would have ensured it was at least accurate.