Breaking news
Credit: Thinkstock
Breaking news and natural disasters raise a unique dilemma in the age of 24-hour news and social media – how much is too much? And when do you move on?

When Anna Doble, head of online at Channel 4 News, worked in radio there were occasionally days "when the editor would come in and say 'it's a one story day' and almost ban you from writing stories or cutting audio about anything other then the main breaking story".

Such days would only happen for big, breaking stories like the 7/7 bombings – "where it made no sense to be talking about anything else" – but the internet needs a slightly different approach.

"You still might have a 'one story day' attitude with something like the Philippines disaster," she said, " but you need to think around not putting up tweets that are too light-hearted."

At the BBC, Mark Frankel, the assistant editor for social news, said there should not be any strict "rules of engagement" for approaching large news stories like the Philippines typhoon from a social media perspective, but that social media teams should maintain a balanced tone.

"We may have features, we may have other stories that we're looking at that are more light-hearted," he told Journalism.co.uk.

If Channel 4 News put out five tweets in five minutes that's not going to bombard anyoneAnna Doble, Channel 4 News
"It's getting a balance between the drama and the power of what's going on in the Philippines – which is immensely tragic and distressing to a lot of people – with other stories that are perhaps more light-hearted and less powerful and dramatic and giving people a balance of those stories without them feeling like they are getting too much or too little of one thing."

More often than not, both the audience and newsroom are "feeling their way", said Frankel, and readers or viewers will quickly give their feedback as to the social media strategy of the day.

"They tell us very directly and very vocally if they feel that we're being too flippant or not sharing the content that they particularly want to see," he said.

"We get comments on our Facebook page, we'll get messages back on Twitter and people are very direct with us. You have to keep an eye on those messages and comments and the way people are sharing the content that you are posting and be absolutely clear that when you are getting a certain kind of response that you're in a position to engage with them and maybe adjust your thinking and your plans."

Doble says that different platforms can play a different role in what people are expecting from an organisation in terms of news.

"Most people now follow a sizeable quantity of people," Anna Doble told Journalism.co.uk.

"I have 2,000 names whirling by [on Twitter] and that might be quite a lot but the average is that people probably follow 500 accounts so if Channel 4 News put out five tweets in five minutes that's not going to bombard anyone."

If it does, she said, then people are free to unfollow, or perhaps add the account to a list of news providers and monitor events that way.

Facebook, with its more personal tone, is different, she said.

"On Facebook certainly I would not bombard people with lots and lots of posts on the same story. I would think about giving them the choice to come to your site if they want more, rather than giving them it all in a personal space."

Frankel said that if the BBC have an interactive or a quiz that they were looking to promote on the same day a large breaking news story broke, the team would have to decide when it may be appropriate to do so.

There is a judgement call to make hour-to-hour, day-to-day, on how to surface other contentMark Frankel, assistant editor of social news, BBC News
Promoting a light-hearted quiz in the midst of an international appeal from heads of state for emergency aid would obviously not be suitable, he said, especially when readers and viewers are seeing and reacting to pictures of wrecked homes and body bags lining the streets of a devastated Tacloban.

Later in the day however, when the immediacy of the disaster has died down, the social media team may publish the light-hearted content, clearly sign-posted as something different.

"It's partly about getting their attention but also about not overloading them with the wrong kind of content at the wrong kind of time," he said. "We keep an eye on those comments very carefully and we adjust [the strategy] throughout the day according to how people are relating to it."

The importance, though, lies in being able to judge what is right for both the audience and the news organisation.

"When you have a story which is so emotive and powerful, like in the Philippines, there is a judgement call to make hour-to-hour, day-to-day, on how to surface other content," Frankel said.

An example came on Sunday, when the BBC News Twitter account had been focussing on the Typhoon Haiyan story and the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph. Then Pyotr Pavlensky, a 29-year-old artist, entered Moscow's Red Square and nailed his genitalia to the cobblestones in protest.

"We tweeted to our writer on the story in between tweets about Remembrance Day and the typhoon", said Frankel.

"I could see that the Russia story was doing phenomenally well and we wanted to be part of the narrative in terms of people reading the BBC's take on it. But on the other hand, if you are mid-flow in updates on the Philippines or when everyone is gathered around the Cenotaph in a collective show of remembrance, is it appropriate to tweet about this story? I don't think I've got a right or wrong answer."

There was no negative feedback and the story passed without incident, perhaps because of its shocking nature, its political motivations and its established traction in the digital space.

But given the comparative youth of social media as the means by which news stories are distributed, Frankel said that maybe it was time to take some other considerations into account and apply old lessons to new challenges.

"When we started we all wanted to be out there shouting about the best of what we had," Frankel said, "and where we've got to is that everyone is now doing it in a more systematic way."

"What we maybe have to give a bit more thought to is that there's a lot of noise – do we need to give more thought to tone and timing?

"Do we need to think about it in the same way as a website or a front page? Do we need to think about curating our social media feeds more?"

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).