Tag Archives: Twitter for reporters

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.

In a pinch, Twitter found a long shot source

When you’re the only reporter in the newsroom on a Sunday night, you have to be ready to write any kind of story — even if you have no prior sourcing on it whatsoever. I know how to reach the police chief, but what happens when you need to do a political story, you can’t reach the reporter who usually covers it and you don’t have any important numbers on file?

For me, the answer was Twitter. And it saved my story.

The situation: We were behind several newspapers and Web sites that were reporting Sen. Dave Argall, a relatively big-name politician in Pennsylvania, was going to announce his candidacy for a Congressional seat Monday morning. My job was to catch up, and as anyone who has ever worked a weekend shift knows, that’s no easy task mon a Sunday night.

I didn’t immediately know who to call. Once I came up with some ideas, I was only able to uncover work numbers and e-mail addresses. Sometimes on a Sunday night you have to just cross your fingers and send a few e-mails, make a few hail-mary calls to people who may possibly know people and then accept the reality: chances are good that none of it will work and your story won’t be all that great. It’s not a good feeling but sometimes it happens.

Instead, I turned to Twitter. I knew the county’s Republican committee was on Twitter, but it wasn’t following me so I couldn’t direct message the account. Shortly before 8 p.m. I tweeted:

I realize it’s a longshot, but anyone out there have contacts with @DauphinGOP? One that’d be available for comment on a Sunday night?

Then I intended to go back to work on more old-school methods, trying to think of other ways to get people on the phone. But it took just two minutes before the responses started coming in.

The first person, who works for a political campaign, had the GOP chairman’s home phone number, which was unavailable in the phone book. There was no answer when I called, but I left a message.

The second person had an ex-boyfriend who works as a political consultant for Republicans. She had already e-mailed him, asking if he could help me out.

The third person describes herself as a GOP activist and simply asked: “What do you need from the Dauphin GOP? May be able to get you in touch with them.” I told her about my story, and she went to work for me.

The fourth person was a Republican committeeman himself, and though I knew he was a local politician I was unaware that he was on the committee. After determining that he wouldn’t be the best interview himself, he gave me the chairman’s cell phone number. No answer there either, so I left a message.

The fifth person was also well-connected, but at this point I told her I was feeling optimistic about my chances from the other four. I might come back to her, I said.

Even though I left two messages earlier, I tried the chairman again. This time he picked up, and though he was minutes away from putting his kids to bed he was happy to answer a few questions. The interview was exactly what I needed, and turned what would have been a fairly lousy story into one that accomplished exactly what it needed to do.

A few take-aways for journalists:

  1. If I were sitting in my cubicle thinking, “Who could help me with this story?”, none of the five people would have immediately popped into my mind, and I certainly wouldn’t have met them outside of Twitter since this story wasn’t on my beat. This is the power of Twitter for reporting: You can find help in unexpected places, from people you wouldn’t normally have access to.
  2. But it only paid off because I’ve taken the time to build a useful local network. I’ve counted 415 Twitter users I follow in the Harrisburg area, though I suspect I follow more who I’ve neglected to add to the list. Every one of them could prove valuable in a pinch — we just never know when it’ll be.
  3. You’ll notice Twitter didn’t replace fundamental reporting, it just facilitated it. I still needed to persist and call the chairman three separate times before I got the source on the phone.

Reporters who use Twitter know that this is a pretty pedestrian example of its effectiveness. This kind of situation has become routine as I incorporate Twitter (and sometimes Facebook) into my everyday reporting. And it should also be noted that you shouldn’t see the people who follow you as potential minions…there’s just as much value in listening as there is in sourcing.