Twitter journalism, beyond happenstance

Twitpic of plane on the Hudson

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the  Hudson River, a few non-journalists used their investigative instincts and some basic Twitter tools to find details about the news and share it with the world.

After Janis Krums (@jkrums) tweeted his picture of the downed airplane, mainstream media marveled at the power of social tools, and the online community celebrated MSM’s recognition of Twitter and “citizen journalism.”

But mobile gadgetry and Twitter expertise didn’t place Krums near the Hudson plane incident. His photograph was, as Martin O’Malley said over two years ago, “the result of new technology and happenstance.”

Krums can’t teach reporters happenstance, but journalists can  learn from a few Twitter users who engaged in the “activity” of journalism when they recognized news, looked for details, found an amazing picture and were the first to share it with the world, well before any traditional news organization.

Office talk, search, copy and paste

Michael Chin (@sirmichael)was in the 5th-floor offices of KickApps, where he is the senior vice president of marketing, when Flight 1549 landed about two miles away, on the Hudson River.

On Jan. 15, shortly after 3:30 p.m, someone in Chin’s office heard that a plane crashed somewhere in New York City. That information was shared with Chin, who used his MacBook to visit Twitter Search and look for tweets that contained the word “plane.” He saw two or three messages related to the crash. One came from @trappedinabay, who had texted a message saying that she could see the plane from her office. He sent her a message, asking for more details.

While he waited for a reply, Chin flipped his Firefox back to the Twitter Search tab, which he had kept open the whole time. He saw the tweet that @jkrums sent at 3:36 and clicked to see the picture. Chin immediately copied Krums tweet, switched over to the Twitter site, typed in “OMG RT @,” pasted in the original message and hit the “update” button to send “retweet” the picture to his 249 followers.

Network, news feed and TweetDeck

Twenty-three seconds later, Matthew DeVries (@DariusMDev) became the second person to retweet Krums’ photo, as he sat in front of his Dell Notebook in Toledo, Ohio. DeVries found out about the incident when someone he follows posted a note that read “plane crashes into hudson”.  At the time, DeVries followed about 62 people on Twitter, and he had about the same number of people following him.

Instead of traditional news sources DeVries uses Twitterfall or Twitscoop as “news feeds.” When he saw the tweet about the plane, he switched over to one of those sites in Firefox and searched for the word “hudson”. 

Like Chin, DeVries was impressed by the picture he saw when he clicked on the link to Krums’ TwitPic. DeVries uses the TweetDeck program to post messages to Twitter. After seeing the photo, he immediately started following @jkrums so that he could got to the tweet from TweetDeck. Once it was there, he used TweetDeck’s “retweet” button to share the message with his 62 followers.

Reporting out of context

What DeVries and Chin did that day was simple.

  • They listened
  • They recognized news
  • They used the tools at their disposal to to gather details
  • They published the information they found

What they didn’t do is vet the information and add context, which pose many ethical and professional problems for traditional journalists. Then again, less than 20 minutes after Krums posted his picture, these media outlets  also retweeted it: @TheSquare (KGW, Portland, OR), @MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) and @acmaurer (Amanda Maurer, Chicago Tribune).

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2 thoughts on “Twitter journalism, beyond happenstance

  1. Hi Kevin.
    This is an excellent post.
    Your point about Twitter accounts not being vetted is a tremendous concern.
    I wonder whether the market can solve this problem though: If people Tweet facts which are not true, they will not be retweeted and they will lose followers, whereas people who share valuable information will gain.
    This will not work well in a breaking news environment, but there is often incorrect information that is reported by traditional media in such situations.
    The value of an army of "reporters" with the ability to immediately relay information is a formidable force.

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