For good or bad we’ve had a glut of gripping stories this summer, those sit-glued-to-the-TV moments where everyone wants to know what’s going on. For me the Oslo / Utøya attacks, the London riots, and the rebel advance on Tripoli have been three such events.
Only now there is a complement to the TV – social media, and especially Twitter. Yet that has of course not stopped a whole host of nay-sayers bemoaning the role of social media.
Here then is a practical guide to following a breaking news story via social media, and what to watch out for.
1. Social media can tell you when something is happening, and where the good coverage is
Perhaps the simplest of all – use social media to give a pointer towards the best coverage in the traditional media. On Sunday night Twitter was full of news about the rebels’ advance on Tripoli, a cue to turn on the TV for some live video. Secondly, tweets from across the UK political spectrum were wondering why BBC had no up-to-date footage, while Sky’s Alex Crawford was on a Tripoli street with gunfire in the background. I wouldn’t normally touch Sky News but this time it was the best bet.
2. Follow people you trust
This sounds easier than it can prove to be in practice. On social media you have everything from the journalists on the front line to the equivalent of a drunken conversation in a pub, so you need to cut through the noise to get to the good content. Chances are that NPR’s Andy Carvin (@acarvin) is going to be aggregating coverage of any major story, so he’s a good person to start with. I’ve met Andy – he’s a pro and I trust his judgment.
Beyond that look at what people you know personally are writing – my good friend in Oslo Bente Kalsnes (@benteka) mentioned Rune Håkonsen (@runehak) and his live tweets about Utøya. Rune’s biog states he works for NRK, he’s reputable, so follow. For the London riots Neal Mann (@fieldproducer) was mentioned so widely that he was a must-follow. In short trust people who people you trust also trust.
Services like Klout or PeerIndex might be able to tell you if someone is generally reputable but won’t help you much when a news story is breaking.
3. On social media, verification of facts happens in public – don’t be drawn in unless there is good reason
The number of observations and comments online can lead to contrary points of view being expressed simultaneously, best summed up in the case of the Tripoli advance in this tweet by @gdwilliamson:
Unlike in the traditional media, the sifting through and verification of facts takes place in public, rather than behind closed doors – vital to keep this in mind.
Conversely the intelligence and analysis of people online can beat the mainstream media to get to the bottom of a complex event, as shown in response to the Oslo and Utøya attacks when the mainstream media was slow to reject the jihadist terrorism link.
As an individual, make sure you only write what you can yourself verify, and do not assume things you read are true. However be ready to analyse trends and thoughtful reflections – these may turn out to be correct, and opinions may be aired online that simply are not available in the mainstream media.
4. Social Media can provide information you cannot easily get any other way
On one of the nights of the London riots I was in west London and had no idea what was going on in Bow, the area of east London where I normally live. I asked for news about Bow on Twitter, adding #londonriots to my tweet. Two individuals I have never met and do not follow were in Bow and tweeted their observations. Of course all of the points above about trust etc., needs to be applied to their response, but conversely no mainstream media was complete in its coverage (as Dave Hill explains in relation to Woolwich).
For Utøya I wanted to know if all my Norwegian friends were safe, and here Twitter could not help me, and sending an e-mail to a few dozen people would have been an over-reaction. But a quick glance at all my Norwegian friends’ Facebook profiles showed they were all ok.
5. Have a sense of humour
Perhaps not as important as the other four points, but – even in times of difficulty – comments on social media can sometimes make you smile. Can you imagine the BBC calling Gadaffi Schrodinger’s dictator? Or tongue in cheek connections between London and Tripoli?