From eye witness accounts to prime time news

There are very few Twitter accounts that I have set up for phone alerts. Aside from @comms2point0 the rest are academics or academic institutes doing research on disaster comms, behavioural economics and journalism.

I've followed the the Nieman Lab on Twitter for a while now but I only recently switched on mobile alerts for their tweets. I'm glad I did because already I've found their research invaluable.

Those who know me will know I was a journalist for 14 years before making the move to public sector comms. Over the last few years I've been getting involved in emergency exercises and represent my council on our local Emergency Co-ordination Group.

Last year I graduated with an MSc in Corporate Communications and Public Affairs and my thesis looked at the development of the use of social media of both journalists and emergency responders. In my days as a reporter I was a bit of an ambulance chaser but now I find myself following major disasters and emergencies as they unfold on Twitter and YouTube – the Japanese tsunami, Hurricane Sandy, the shootings in Sandy Hook and more recently the Boston bombings and the fertiliser factory explosion in West.

Turns out I'm not the only one. Nieman research fellow Hong Qu last week published his analysis of how the Boston bombing story broke, looking at the timeline of the tweets and the retweets. This shows that the story was broken by eye witnesses at the scene – or as I called them in my thesis, unwitting citizen journalists. The initial tweets only mustered a few retweets within their social networks.

The next phase was those tweets being picked up by the media which, with more followers on their accounts gained more retweets. They also added more weight to the story as they are a trusted source.

The report highlights the fact that it took an hour for the facts to be corroborated by the government. The conclusion is that this type of story is broken by the public but is verified and amplified by the media.

Well, I agree as far as it goes but this is exactly what my Masters thesis researched and I would say that Qu should have factored in the Twitter response from the first responders involved – sometimes they have just as many, if not more followers than some media accounts. By using Followerwonk you can work out how many common followers accounts have. When I compared South Lanarkshire Council followers with those of Strathclyde Police and The Evening Times they were very different with less than 100 people following all three accounts.

In my thesis I proposed that in emergency situations we should all work together using common hashtags, embedded Twitter streams on each others websites and automation tools such as IFTTT and TwitterFeed.

Also, in Scotland all first responders now have verified Twitter accounts – not something all Scottish media outlets have so the public know whose information is more trustworthy.

If we can spend the quiet times learning how to use the tools available to us but also developing relationships with journalists and editors, when push comes to shove using the technology should be second nature and we should all be sharing trusted information in a way that informs as as many people as quickly as possible.

The media landscape has also changed over the last few years with 24/7 rolling news but journalists and editors have to realise, that during emergencies, our first responsibility is to warn and inform the public and now we have the tools to do that ourselves. In some situations we may decide not to have media calls, press conferences or even to answer calls from journalists. In September last year the Spanish authorities took that very decision during the wildfires. The situation was fast moving and they had to warn and inform both residents and tourists. They decided that the messages would be the same whether they were talking to the public or the press so they took the decision to use their own website and Twitter stream and left the media to pick up the latest from there like everyone else. A brave decision but and obvious one to me.

You'll find an executive summary and you can download the full thing on my blog but I'd also recommend you follow the Nieman Lab, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the European Journalism Center on Twitter and set up alerts on your phone so you don't miss all the interesting information and events they produce.

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Nigel Matthews 7 Years Ago
Thanks for a very interesting article. With regards to emergancy situations, when I worked for one of the largest providers of CMS to Local Gov I recall monitoring websites during 7/7 for and announcements. Few where forth coming yet this was not surprising. The conversation on Twitter is more joined up and immediate and fit for purpose. More recently I noticed during the Boston bombing incident users on FB who had access to and where following the events as they unfolded on police scanners made sure they monitored each others posts so police tactics were not revealed during the incident. An indication of social maturity perhaps?