Twitter: A journalist's gateway to the world
While working as an assignment editor and producer at CBS News in New York, Natasha Rudnick found herself relying on Twitter more and more to cover remote and international breaking news. This phenomenon of social networking provided an invaluable tool in discovering information and contacting sources on some of the biggest stories of the last few years. She discusses the pros, cons, and caveats of using Twitter to reach the world from the newsroom.
On the afternoon of August 23, 2011, I was sitting in my New York City apartment talking to a friend in Washington D.C. when he suddenly panicked.
“The building is shaking,” he said. “I have to get out of here.”
He quickly hung up and I immediately looked to Twitter to discover that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake had struck nearby in Virginia. Tweets were charting the tremor as it made its way up the East Coast in real time. And when my apartment started swaying about 30 seconds later, I already knew key details about what was happening.
During the last few years I have realized that, especially when it comes to remote or international stories, Twitter is a more effective news source than even the wire services. And in breaking news, where distance is an impediment and time is of the essence, Twitter has become a journalist’s eyes and ears on the ground. Short of getting on a plane, there is nothing that comes close to the effectiveness of this phenomenon of social networking.
I started to hone my Twitter news gathering as an assignment editor at CBS News in New York.
I created a main Twitter feed with sources as varied as traditional newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to blogs like The Huffington Post and Politico to primary sites like the Center for Disease Control and the United States Geological Survey. I would refresh my main list, which was following about 100 sources, every few minutes. More often than not, I would have information through Twitter well before the story appeared on my AP wire feed.
This was especially true when it came to tornadoes. I started alone on overnights and my primary fear was missing a story through those early morning hours. It turned out that fear was well-founded. A few weeks in, a twister hit a small town in “tornado alley.” There was extensive damage and many injuries but the news didn’t cross the wires until well after day-break. The other two networks led with the story on their morning broadcasts but we missed it.
After that, I added Severe Studios, one of the leading storm chasers in the United States, to my main Twitter feed. I also created three separate Twitter lists for all of the U.S. local affiliates for CBS, ABC and NBC - and those stations would alert me through Tweets if a storm hit their coverage area. And every night during tornado season, I would open one separate Twitter tab devoted to searching for the word tornado.
Throughout my shift I was refreshing hundreds of Tweets every few minutes but could easily tell if a storm had struck. I never missed another tornado.
When gunmen attacked multiple locations in Mumbai, India in November, 2008, I was searching for the names of Americans who had been shot. Through my affiliate Twitter feeds, I found out that a local Nashville station had interviewed Santos Lopez, husband of U.S. shooting victim Rudrani Devi. I was able to track him down before he left for Mumbai and interview him as he waited to board a plane at the Newark airport.
Twitter also helped me locate the names of hospitals in Mumbai where victims had been rushed. I started calling and eventually was connected to a doctor who was treating Devi. He was kind enough to put her on the phone and we were able to do a telephone interview from her hospital bed.
Twitter also proved invaluable in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan.
I was trying to locate Americans living near or in the disaster area. In that case, the language barrier proved fortuitous, because English Tweets from the area were less frequent. I also used the site Monitter.com, which is a tool that works with Twitter to isolate Tweets in a specific geographic area.
By searching near different Japanese cities, I was able to locate more than half a dozen English speakers (mostly American) who then were able to join us for Skype interviews and update us on the worsening situation on the ground.
Of course, there are situations where Twitter isn’t effective.
In countries where current technology isn’t widespread, the power of Twitter is drastically diminished. When an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, 2010, most of the Tweets providing information were coming from international aid organizations as opposed to people in the disaster zone. As time went on, and more aid and manpower got into Haiti, the localized Tweets increased, but not by much.
Obviously, the destruction of telecom infrastructures and a slow re-establishment of back-up power directly affected Internet capabilities. But according to the United Nations, only 10% of the Haitian population were Internet users in 2009. Compare that to 78% of the population for Japan in the same year and it’s easy to see why Twitter was a much more effective communication tool in the latter.
Twitter’s capabilities are proportional to the Internet access and usage in the area affected.
I now find Twitter essential and rely on it heavily but it's still necessary to use traditional methods of newsgathering to confirm everything I read in 140 characters.
For example, tornado damage Tweets would be cross-checked with incident reports on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website and I would also speak to a National Weather Service meterologist, police officer, or affiliate directly to verify any information. Internationally, all material, especially posted videos, should be well investigated and confirmed.
Journalists should treat Twitter as they would any information on the Internet that comes from a non-trusted source (unless it’s from a confirmed official Twitter account). It’s the first piece in a much larger puzzle that needs to be solidly constructed before communicating the full picture to the public.
There are obvious advantages to covering breaking news from the field. But Twitter is providing journalists with the next-best option, especially when the events unfold on the other side of the world and foreign bureaus are cutting staff or being eliminated completely.
In many cases, Twitter has allowed me to contribute significantly to newsgathering from a location far away from the breaking news event. And when speed, money, and access are all paramount, there is currently no better journalistic tool than Twitter.
Natasha Rudnick has worked in newsrooms on both sides of the border. She's produced for CBS News, the CBC, Bravo!, and Fashion Television. Her writing credits include The Globe and Mail, CBSNews.com, Reader's Digest, Outdoor Canada, and she's a contributor to the Huffington Post. Natasha holds undergraduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Ryerson and a Masters from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She split the last decade living in Toronto and New York City.