Inside Beeld’s decision to break Pistorius story on Twitter

Today’s Beeld (15 Feb 2013)

Who broke the Oscar Pistorius story on Twitter yesterday and does this even count?

I think so.  When you consider how the story moved around the world on Twitter so fast and dominated social networks and media platforms all day.

It is quite simply the story of the decade. There hasn’t been anything this big globally since OJ Simpson.

And this time around we have Twitter so it is well worth watching how it will affect media coverage and the quality of  information – and disinformation  – going around.

This starts now.

As a news organisation, for example, how do you keep the information accurate and ethical amid the frenzy?

It is hard. But I can report that Beeld, the Afrikaans daily newspaper of Pretoria (where Pistorius lives and the shooting took place) and Johannesburg, had this at the very forefront of their thinking even as they were THE VERY FIRST to break the Pistorius story on Thursday morning with this tweet at 8.03am:


Beeld, which has more than 29 000 followers, got this story up by crime reporter Fanie van Rooyen on their website at 8.04am.

It seemed to go viral when Talk Radio 702 tech expert Aki Anastasiou (with more than 38 000 followers) tweeted this at 8.08am:


Beeld news editor Pieter du Toit told me this morning that two Beeld reporters, Fanie van Rooyen and Hilda Fourie, got tip-offs from two separate independent sources after the shooting, which took place in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and it was all hands on deck pretty much from 6am for the Beeld staff.

“Before we broke the story (on Twitter) there was a conversation between all the senior editors, the editor  and the assistant editor about how solid was our information and were we willing to go with it.”

Du Toit said Beeld found itself in a similar situation last year, when Nelson Mandela was hospitalised and the government was keeping the hospital’s  name under wraps.

Beeld was on to the Pretoria hospital a  week before anyone else but it held back on breaking the news of its name as they debated the moral and ethical issues around  publishing it.

“It’s a difficult one to decide,” said Du Toit, “because I think newspapers are moving into the realm of radio – with their continuous news cycle… With Twitter and our websites, we are starting to move into that space. So the challenge is: When do you break news that you think that you’ve got exclusively? On Madiba’s hospital we waited too long and Eyewitness News broke the story. They got the credit and good on them.

“But this time around we were happy with the solidity of our sources. The issue that we considered was: “Is it in the public interest?” We decided: ‘Yes, it is’.”

“It happened in our backyard and squarely in an area where we are the biggest newspaper – the east of Pretoria – and where our contacts across the board from the police to the prosecuting authorities are at their best. Looking at today’s newspaper, I would venture to say that we are ahead on the story at the moment.”

The main story in Beeld today by Van Rooyen and Fourie says that Pistorius’s girlfriend,  Reeva Steenkamp, was found dead behind the bathroom door and there were  bullet holes in the door. Further, that the police and the estate’s security were called two hours before the shooting took place about noise coming from Pistorius’s home.

“It is a difficult story to do,” Du Toit said.  “Like other local media, we were swamped yesterday with requests from TV, radio and newspapers from overseas. It is a big story so the challenge is to do it in a responsible manner and get as much detail as we can without prejudicing the legal process or prejudicing the victim and the alleged perpetrator.”

As an aside, it is also so interesting that this is not the first time that we have seen a tweet by Anastasiou on breaking news go viral.

When news of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s death in 2010 was broken on Twitter by blogger FromTheOld,    it only went viral when Anastasiou and  Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes tweeted about it.

Granted, Anastasiou has more followers than Beeld but not that much more so why was his tweet amplified to such a degree?

Is it because he is a popular radio personality and so people sit up and really pay attention?  It is because he tweeted this in  English and not in Afrikaans (as Beeld did)?

Did that mean that the tweet could, therefore, move beyond South Africa more quickly. I’m not sure?

Please let me know your thoughts – I’d be fascinated to hear – as Twitter is such a strange, defining  phenomenon of our times.

[box]SEE ALSO: #OscarPistorius shooting shock – the Twitter frenzy visualised [interactive][/box]

  • Peter W. Venter

    I’m an experienced crime author. In my professional opinion, if Judge Masipa wants to make the right decision and gain the respect of South African citizens as well as global, she would decide on Gerrie Nel’s suggestion of a prison sentence of 10 years. Hospital treatment and parole plays a minor role. If she gives a verdict of no prison sentence at all, I’m afraid she’ll have the majority of South Africans and a global opinion not sharing her view and that will be the end of her line as a High Court Judge.

  • James

    My brother does work for a morning show – he pointed out to me that often the news reports there are not so concerned about absolute accuracy, because within a few hours the details have evolved. This saga illustrates it rather perfectly: Beeld said it was an intruder and soon this was attributed to a police comment that never existed. Now the press at large are sidestepping that part of the story.

    The point is that information culture has changed the rules of engagement. Verification is secondary to speed, partly because misinformation can quickly be rooted out. The scenario obviously dictates this: the war in Syria is still very murky. But it was a matter of days – if not hours – before a clearer desert of Gadaffi’s death emerged.

    I’m not saying there ought not be verification. But the nature of the beast has changed. News outlets simply cannot play this game with 20th century rules anymore.

  • James

    Yes, I think ‘story of the decade’ is overstating it a little. MJ’s death was as big and covered. Ditto on the Japanese Tsunami and the royal wedding. The true measure and impact of a story can only be really measured after the storm subsides.

  • Gill Moodie

    I’ve wondered about too, Haroun. You’ll be interested to now that I’m chatting to Aki tomorrow to get his thought on this.

  • Haroun Kola

    A breaking story on twitter and its viral nature is an interesting topic, Perhaps its because of Aki’s exposure in the tech space, and his followers being more savvy with RTs

  • Rusty van Druten

    The issue that we considered was: “Is it in the public interest?” We decided: ‘Yes, it is’.”

    Wow, to have senior news staff asking themselves this question under the circumstances defies belief.

  • Willie

    Ps. I believe that Fanie van Rooyen and Hilda Fourie may be complicit in an attempt to put a ‘spin’ on the story and that their ‘sources’ should be disclosed and questioned as part of the criminal investigation.

  • Willie

    We are moving into the realm of real-time justice where legal jurisprudence, free-flowing information and public opinion can contribute towards shaping a sound democratic outcome for events of national concern.

  • Gill Moodie

    That’s really interesting, Marius, about Rapport. And thanks to all for good points. Ordentlike mense, neh.

  • Sue

    The media arena has changed a huge amount since 2010. Back then, no mainstream news organisation would have dared tio break the Terreblanche story without confirmation from an independent source. The blogger, a rightwinger, had no such qualms. These days, to hesitate is to be lost in the clutter of Twitter. Beeld would have been crazy to let the story stew. Their reporting on this story has been amazing.

  • Marius

    Definitely because it was in Afrikaans, Beeld’s tweet had limited retweet value. Beeld should consider following up with an English tweet on big stories like this. We (at Rapport) have seen how our Afrikaans stories sometimes disappear until they get picked up around Tuesday or Wednesday because we neglected to put out an English version too.

    It is interesting that they already knew about it at 6 o’clock… They really waited a long time and could well have lost the initiative if they’d waited a moment longer.

  • zip reeper

    oscar’s twitter account is strangely silent but he can tweet on the sound of clanging cell doors at the brooklyn police station, till it’s back to court tuesday. guess steenkamp’s autopsy is about now.

  • kobus

    Don’t forget about the death of Michael Jackson