Sky News and the 2019 London Bridge terror attack: how the breaking news story was covered

Sky News won ‘Breaking News Story of the Year’ at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020 for its coverage of the London Bridge terror attack on 29 November 2019. Here, the team behind the coverage reveal the challenges faced and strategies used on the day.

The challenge

Few stories can test a newsroom like a terror attack. Hard facts are scarce; rumour, half-truth and conflicting accounts are rife; and the stakes - life and death in the UK's capital - could not be higher. Sky News prides itself on being first with the news but a wrong step risks harming our reputation for accuracy and the trust we have earned.

The response

The London Bridge attack was first and foremost a human story about a heinous criminal act, the deaths of innocent victims and the immense bravery of the public in subduing a terrorist. We instantly recognised the severity and deployed more than a dozen journalists to the scene.

Police confirmed the first call about the attack came in at 13.58. Officers were on the scene in around five minutes. The suspect was soon shot on London Bridge.

Our digital news editor who monitors social media was quick to recognise that an incident was ongoing. We verified the reports and published a breaking news article by 14.17. We sent a push notification instantly, stating: ‘Police dealing with incident on London Bridge amid reports of shots fired.’

Traffic surged to the Sky News App and website only 20 minutes after the attack began.

At 14.24 - just six minutes later - we launched a live blog with livestream to the rolling news on the TV channel. This offered a combination of written fact, commentary, analysis and pictures in both written and video form which no other publisher could offer so quickly.

Despite conflicting reports about the shooting, by 14.31 we had established through our police sources that a man had been shot and killed. We again sent a push notification alerting our readers. For the next two hours there were mixed reports about the fate of the man shot, but we were confident in our sources and continued to report he was dead while others wavered.

While our journalists were establishing the facts, our digital news editor was seeking and verifying video of the incident posted on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

At 14.38 we published the first video of the attack in our blog, having taken the responsible stance of not rushing anything to publication which could identify police or security officers. We also ensured the man shot had been blurred as it was unclear at that stage exactly what had happened. This was a prudent approach.

Our team of journalists were speaking to numerous witnesses, and by 14.47 we published a breakout article detailing their stories. This included the account of Celia Sodera, a bus passenger who described the moment Usman Khan was shot dead by police lying on the floor reaching for his hoax suicide belt.

Over the next hour the story quickly developed as we established through sources that at least one civilian had been killed, sending another notification at 15.11.

At 15:30 we published a blow-by-blow account of how the terrorist was held down and disarmed by members of the public. The headline was updated to ‘Heroic passers-by pin attacker to the ground’. Calling them heroes in a headline is uncharacteristically interpretive for Sky News and showed our editorial foresight in predicting the front pages the next day. Carefully curated video of the attack followed, using multiple angles.

At around the same time we obtained confirmation from police that the attack was being treated as terror-related. To contextualise we published an explainer article detailing a timeline of the terror attacks that the UK has seen in the past few years.

Just after 5pm we obtained and published the first picture of terrorist Usman Khan with fake bomb vest, showing exactly what armed officers were confronted by. After careful consideration we published the image with his face blurred, sending a notification with the image. It was an iconic picture that defined the day - shown first by Sky News.

Over the next few hours the story took on a different rhythm with police press conferences confirming details we had largely already established. These were carried live and covered in our hugely popular blog.

By the evening we published an exclusive on the police response. Our home affairs correspondent Mark White was with 3 Area Territorial Support Group as the first radio bursts came through about an incident with multiple casualties. His eyewitness report offered a unique insight as officers raced to the scene. The sharp writing reflected their uncertainty and apprehension, and even a sense of deja vu in some who had been involved in the last London Bridge attack. The digital video edit was equally compelling.

Late in the evening the story took on a new, political dimension with a row brewing over the release of prisoners. We published clips with both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Then just after 10pm we were in a position to reveal the first details about the suspect’s criminal history and dealings with Islamist terrorists. The digging continued, and at 00.41 we sent a notification confirming that the terror suspect shot dead on London Bridge was 28-year-old Usman Khan.

Our social media channels - Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube Snapchat - were used not only to send out breaking lines and stories as they were published, but also to host our TV channel so it reached a larger and younger audience.

A significant breaking news story never ends on the day. As a team we kept across lines in the weeks afterwards - the attacker’s identity and dealings, the prison service’s failings and the swirling electoral politics.

Two weeks later, after many hours of delicate negotiation, we secured the first and only interview with Dave Merritt - father of victim Jack Merritt. He spoke to our political editor Beth Rigby, accusing the prime minister of exploiting Jack’s death for electoral gain, a story that had an impact on the campaign and was picked up by most rival publishers.

The results

The London Bridge terror attack took all our skill, judgement and experience as breaking news journalists. A fast-paced and multi-dimensional story, it was picture and video rich, had people at its heart and developed rapidly from the start. It began as a shooting on a major London landmark with conflicting information, but soon became a terror attack with tragedy and heroism at its core. It ended the day a political battlefield with searching questions for prison authorities and political leaders.

Sky News captured all those elements, and more, in the critical hours after the attack. We broke news of the incident within 20 minutes of it happening, quickly providing facts by launching a live blog before anyone else and offering a live stream with aerial pictures from our helicopter within an hour. Our specialists and sources meant we could break exclusive news lines about the police response, the innocent victims and the identity of the attacker.

We were responsible in our curation and usage of the UGC, making quick editorial judgements in constantly updating articles on the attack, the witness testimony and the stories of bravery.

This project was a winner at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. To register your interest in any of The Drum’s upcoming awards, click here.

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