Sunday, February 14, 2010

Make most of social media during breaking news

At 3:59 a.m. Feb. 9, Northern Illinois experienced something unusual: a 3.8 magnitude earthquake. Thanks to Sun-Times Media's breaking news text alert, I was aware of this by 5:15 a.m.

I remember learning in my newsroom days at Mizzou that when news strikes, the first thing a good journalist does is head for the newsroom, if the scene of the news is not applicable. I have always agreed. But as I rolled out of bed so early Feb. 9, I learned something else: In my pajamas, as early as 6 a.m., I had the capability - no, the power - of spreading the news to at least 500 people on Facebook and Twitter while at the same time gathering a handful of quality quotes and contact information for reliable sources. And that's exactly what I did.

U.S. Geological Survey map of intensity of shake by community following a 3.8 magnitude temblor Feb. 9. Its epicenter was in Pingree Grove, Ill.
Beating social media at its own game

Anyone, journalist or not, can spread information as quickly as the snap of a techtonic plate these days. And like our inability to control temblors from beneath, the media doesn't have control over what is played off as truth in a Web 2.0 society. But, with quality journalistic instinct and a thorough understanding of how to crowd source, established news outlets will always maintain the power of providing the truth. It's how we shift our news gathering skills that will ultimately keep us relevant in this world of information overload.

Last week's quake presented journalists across Illinois an opportunity to think outside the box and approach breaking news differently than ever. For those who may still freeze in the face of breaking news and social media talk, consider these tips to make your job easier if you just break away from anti-social thinking:
  • Get news out faster than ever: If you work in a newroom like mine, you are familiar with the barriers between the print editors and the Web editors. A lot of coordination and communication needs to be in place for a news package to maintain its respective quality and selling ability in print vs. online. When news breaks, the print and Web editors have to communicate about what needs to go online, and communication then has to travel to the reporter to ensure that updates will come flowing in quickly even as he or she works to beat the print deadline. In the case of the quake, I was on Twitter and Facebook via my mobile device and later my work desktop for hours, gathering quotes and personal accounts of damage to pass along to other editors and reporters for source consideration in print. At the same time, our Web editor was gathering the information we knew was fact, either from the reporter on the story or from official press releases, and consistantly updating the story on our established Web site. Get the news out there ASAP, and get social to bring its benefits back home in a matter of minutes. 
  • Act as a marketer: In a time when money for brand marketing at a newspaper is, for the most part, nonexistant, keep in mind that as a social media representative, you have the responsibility to get your brand noticed, especially in times of breaking news. In today's age, news consumers expect information to come to them. And if you don't do it, someone else will. In Tuesday's case, a tweet as simple as: "BREAKING: Earthquake hits just north of Elgin. Check back here or watch for updates," keeps you relevant in your readers' minds. And, heck, they might just go to your site right then and there, which means another click for your business. Never a bad thing.
  •  Get sourced up in minutes: Through the two obvious mediums, Facebook and Twitter, a reporter who goes social in times of breaking news has access to quotes, phone numbers, addresses and names of sources extremely quickly. In fact, new BBC Director Peter Horrocks didn't waste any time mandating that all journalists in his newsroom must embrace social media and use them to do their jobs. In Mashable blogger Jennifer Van Grove's article from Feb. 9, Horrocks says, "This isn’t just a kind of fad… I’m afraid you’re not doing your job if you can’t do those things." (See: New BBC director mandates journalists use social media). Now, I wouldn't go so far to say that a reporter who doesn't have a Facebook profile is a bad reporter - but, I would consider the reporter foolish for looking past a free and reliable resource to find what he or she is looking for more quickly than walking the streets or knocking on doors looking for a quote. 
    •  With that said, there will always be merit to the journalist's belief that in order to do your job well, you can't do it from your desk. Get out of the newsroom to tell a good story. But, if you're at a loss for where to go to find a good source, try an advanced Twitter search to find out who in your area is talking about what you're covering. Look for a handful of tweets that stand out to you, and simply send an @reply to the user asking if they'd like to talk further with you about his or her experience. Get his or her phone number, or address of where they'll be today, and meet up for a credible conversation.
  • Load a Twitter widget to your news site: The Elgin Courier-News, a sister paper to The Aurora Beacon-News and others in Sun-Times Media, was the primary source for earthquake coverage last week, as the epicenter was in its coverage area. You'll notice on its site a Twitter widget that included real-time chatter surrounding the hashtag #chicagoearthquake.

    Some journalists argue that credibility is at risk when one relies on Twitter for quotes and information. This is completely true. However, widgets lend us a hand as far as giving readers what they expect: Real-time information. You must consider that a Twitter widget, coupled with an article from a credible news establishment, will inevitably make the reader say to him or herself, "Consider the source." Readers know that if they are watching a widget feed of #chicagoearthquake comments that they are only getting the "citizen" portion of the news. But they are still relying on you as the skilled journalist to bring home the real story. Since nailing down factual information and trustworthy sources takes time, take advantage of that Twitter chatter while readers know that it is the same thing, in theory, of listening to their neighbor's account while out getting the mail. The widget allows us as the news establishment to keep the compelling factor alive while we do our duty of flawless news gathering.
Remember: Instinct comes first
  • The ones who tweet us want to talk to us. Usually. Trust your journalistic instict and maintain integrity when crowd sourcing via Twitter and Facebook. In the case of the quake, I had several local residents tweet and Facebook their accounts of the quake directly to me. For example, I did a call-out via Facebook for fans' accounts and about five responded. What I try to do to have peace of mind is tweet/message back as many folks who comment or tweet as I can to ensure The Beacon-News has his or her permission to use what they have said in print. It confirms our own credibility, and it humanizes us. This can be time-consuming if you are trying to use many quotes, but a simple copy-and-paste of your message to each individual is relatively simple. And I haven't received a "no" yet from any of these social sources.
  • There are ways to verify credibility. Suppose a local person tweets our way, "Whoa! Huge accident at Main and Broadway! looks like someone killed; heard they were drunk. Saw him crash into tree." This does not in any way give us the go-ahead to send out a breaking news alert to consumers. If you agree, I'm sure your skin just crawled from the thought! But the beauty of receiving such a tweet does give you a potential leg up against your competition, especially if nothing came over on the police scanner (or if you missed it). Like you would handle a phone tip or scanner report, the proper procedure would be to take the tweet seriously, but skillfully look into the accuracy of the statement. Get confirmation from police or an otherwise relevant offical source. Once that is established, go back to the tipper and ask if they'd like to go on the record about their experience. If so, you have what could be a scoop, complete with a personal account from a local resident. Being a simultaneous social media marketer and a journalist with deadlines can be difficult. The lines of trustworthiness, particularly when you are pressed for time, can gray very easily. The key is to maintain your journalistic instinct and integrity, particularly in the event of breaking news.

    This concept of going social in the heat of breaking news is not just to stay hip with readers, but rather to beat readers at their own game of turning to social media for their news rather than to us - the ones who have actually worked for years at building our own credibility and reporting/editing skills.

    In story meetings, we often ask each other, "What are people talking about?" Well, especially in breaking news scenarios that impact a large group of people, the answer lies within the results page of an advanced Twitter search. The beauty of being a social journalist is that it is incredibly easy to find local people who want to talk about what you are writing about.

    For more tips on how to use Twitter to your advantage, see The Journalist's Guide to Twitter.

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