The Conundrum of News Gathering on Twitter

May 03, 2013

Article ImageThe journalist's toolkit has changed dramatically, according to news industry analyst, Ken Doctor (@kdoctor). He considers an early 20th Century doctor and the meager tools of diagnosis he had in his traveling black bag. "The journalistic equivalent is the pencil and pad," Doctor says, jotting down facts in chicken-scratch shorthand that only he could read (if lucky), and traveling here and there to gather the facts from the most reliable sources. Now that journalist has the whole world at his fingertips. Even in an age of endless web information, it goes beyond Google searches and Wikipedia entries; today's journalists are also scouring social media, namely Twitter, for breaking news ideas.

Mark Sherbin (@MarkSherbin), freelance writer for Content Marketing Institute, points to the recent Boston bombings as an example of how Twitter is a valuable source for today's reporter. "Witnesses tweeted pubicly about [the bombings]. News organizations search these networks and get rich media like videos and pictures they'd never get otherwise because it takes their camera crew too long to get to the scene. How much bombing footage run by news networks would you say was taken by a professional?"

The answer, of course, is very little, because Twitter patrons posted in real time. HuffingtonPost writer, Floyd Elliott, believes that Twitter outshined conventional news media at reporting the breaking story of the Boston bombings on a moment-to-moment basis. However, maintaining journalistic integrity means not solely relying on social media for accurate story information.

"I usually scan 1,200 [tweets] per day and post 50 to 60 handpicked news points," says Steffen Konrath (@stkonrath), managing director and editor in chief of Liquid Newsroom. "As with all sources, it is only dangerous if you don't know how to verify or evaluate what has been said. Rumors, claims, accusations -- they won't find their way into my reporting."

Sherbin believes there is a flip-side to news gathering on Twitter. "Social media is a tremendous source of misinformation," he says. "Journalists and editors are professional news-breakers. Social media users could be anyone. They can mishear facts, hide shady motives or convey the right information in the wrong way. You end up with major factual errors, missing information, accidental slant -- sometimes entirely fabricated stories."

Twitter should compliment what you already do as a reporter, according to Jimmy Orr, managing editor of the LA Times online. "It's a good tip sheet. But it's a starting place, not an ending place, and in using it we still must follow basic journalistic guidelines. It's our responsibility to get it right. All we've got is our credibility."

Editor and publisher of The Elizabethtown Advocate, Dan Robrish (@etownpa), uses social media (mostly Facebook) to connect to breaking news in his small community. Recently he followed up on a lead through social media regarding the possible arrest of the high school athletic director. A follow-up with the local police department nullified the story, but Robrish knew the rumor had started, so he posted that there had been no arrests of school employees and the rumor was false.

"I use social media the same way I use a stranger calling me and telling me something -- I would need to substantiate that from someone more credible," Robrish says, pointing out that, while social media is another tool for news gathering, you can't rely upon it.

In a article, Jeremy Stahl (the voice behind Slate's Twitter feed @slate) says, "If, as a wise journalist once said, journalism is the first rough draft of history, then Twitter is the first rough draft of journalism." Along those lines, Stahl (@JeremyStahl) and Sherbin have recommendations for news outlets to consider when using Twitter (or any social media) for newsgathering:

  • Utilize first-person eyewitness accounts and official sources (i.e. third party sources are out unless verified)
  • Follow sources on Twitter that you trust
  • Follow-up with all sources directly to fact-check and clarify
  • Find a second source to substantiate tweeted information
  • If there's a place for an opposing perspective, make sure you get it

"The foundation remains the same: get it right and make it understandable to your audience," says Doctor. "Newsrooms require deep ongoing conversations, involving all, about how to manage everything in the new evolving toolsets."

Sherbin says there's no such thing as the perfect rule system, but journalism's ethics and standards come pretty close. "Checking and double-checking facts is crucial to surviving the web's constant deluge of information." That said, Sherbin believes that unsubstantiated tweets should be treated as leads until proven otherwise because social media may change the game, but it doesn't change the rules.

(News image courtesy of Shutterstock.)