When cops and Twitter tell different stories

July 4 in Philadelphia offered us a solid case study on the proper place of Twitter in reporting. Word of a shooting at a crowded Center City fireworks show spread rapidly through Twitter, and some people are disappointed that local media did not report on it. I’m about as big of a Twitter fan as you’ll find, but I mostly disagree with the criticism.

In case you have a short attention span, here’s the quick version:

  • When monitoring Twitter for breaking news, one first-hand account is worth far more than 1,000 tweets of hearsay.
  • Tweets of hearsay still have value and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Think of Twitter users as sources, and vet them the same way you’d vet any other source.

What follows is a recreation of the night and an explanation of how some reporters responded.

One important take-away from all of this: If anyone were offering real evidence in a haystack like this, you need to know a few tricks to find that needle. If you haven’t mastered the possibilities of Twitter’s advanced search, learn them now before you’ll need them.

One trick is to narrow your search to within a few miles of the location, and search for phrases a witness might use. During the Discovery crisis in Silver Spring, Md. last year, I was able to find a few people inside the building by a geo-targeted search for phrases like “I’m safe” and “I’m OK.” I also searched for “Discovery”+”works there” to find the people saying “OMG my brother/wife/friend works there,” then messaged them to see if we could get in touch with that person.

And lastly, I’d make the point that in the midst of Breaking News Information Chaos like this, when hundreds of people are reporting their own news, the role of the trusted news organization or individual reporter becomes more important, not less important. Readers are waiting for us to provide a level of authority they don’t grant  fellow users.

  • Anonymous

    BNIC — new news acronym?

  • http://bydanielvictor.com Daniel Victor

    I like it. We can lead a BNIC panel at next year’s BCNI. 

  • http://twitter.com/pamasaur Pamela

    Neat article Dan! And love the use of storyify

  • http://jimmacmillan.net Jim MacMillan

    Hey Daniel,

    Nice breakdown, but I have been struggling to understand the absolute preoccupation with gunfire as the decisive criterion to determine news value. 

    For instance, I’d also like to be informed when citizens are panicked, trampled, mobbing, beaten and stabbed around the city’s premier annual event.

    As for your bottom line: “Readers are waiting for us to provide a level of authority they don’t grant  fellow users.” Yep, about 36 hours in this case.

    Of course verification is important, but Twitter gave me all the info I needed to make my choice Sunday night: Stay inside!

    Unfortunately, not everyone possesses the advanced Twitter search skills you described.

    So, why can’t a couple of the 400 journalists employed by Daily News, Inki & Philly.com filter social media content and deliver contextualized live coverage – as well as the often delayed official response overs the next day or two?

    Until then, I’ll trust my life to Twitter first. #4realz


  • http://bydanielvictor.com Daniel Victor

    Heya Jim,

    Glad to see you weigh in. On your specific points:

    – I think we may be debating two related but slightly different issues here. My focus is on what the reporters should be doing in the moment, whereas you seem to be focused on the follow-up. 

    That’s fine, and I think your criticism of waiting 36 hours for the chaos story is valid (you’ll notice I said I mostly disagree with the critics in my first graf). But if we’re going to give Twitter users their due, you also have to give Jason Nark his due for conveying that chaos immediately on his Twitter account. He acknowledged that chaos while also making clear he couldn’t confirm the gun shots. So I think it’s fair to question not seeing a full story earlier, but you can’t say it wasn’t reported earlier. 

    – I don’t think gunfire was the decisive criterion, but that certainly would have elevated the story to a much more significant level. I do think that was the most important thing to confirm, and I’m glad the DN and Inquirer focused their efforts on trying to confirm it. I chose to focus on it for this because that’s the kind of detail that’d be really tempting to report due to the quantity of tweets, but it was impressive they didn’t succumb.

    – This certainly isn’t an excuse, but some possible context for the discussion: I’m sure it was an absolutely skeletal crew at 11:30 p.m. on a holiday, and they must’ve been quite busy trying to put the paper to bed. I haven’t walked downstairs to ask, but I find it hard to believe that wouldn’t be a factor. If this had happened on a non-holiday, perhaps it would have been different.

    – The biggest improvement the DN could make next time, in my opinion, is in exactly the kind of contextualized live reporting you mentioned. That’s what I meant by the “here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, and please help out” part of the post. I think that kind of story should go up right away so people know something’s happening, then they can continue to update it as the news develops.

    – No doubt Twitter gave us the info we needed to stay inside, and I’m quite thankful for it. I’m totally with you on that. #4realz

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  • http://twitter.com/laurenmichell Lauren M. Rabaino

    Nice, Dan. Thanks for writing this. Definitely going to share with the Seattle Times crew, as this advice is hugely important in our day-to-day twitter monitoring.

    A few things: 
    1. What are your thoughts on retweeting readers’ reports? Is RT’ing your endorsement of fact / fueling the fire of unverified info?
    2. Did you respond to the reports on twitter beyond the superficial, “We’re looking into it”?

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