How to tweet the news 6

Twitter is often maligned as fast and simple chat for empty headed gossips. This may be often true.

But if its combined with good journalism fact checking, it can help create an unprecedented network of sources providing global reach, diversity and credibility.

Jess Hill, 28, is a reporter and producer at ABC Radio current affairs. Her Twitter site shows she’s following more than three thousand other chatters; a distinct contrast to celebrity journalists who talk more than they might appear to listen. She began using Twitter for reporting on the first day of the Libyan protests. Instead of trying to find people on conventional contact lists, she began putting messages out on Twitter asking,  “Does anyone in #….  know about… and then have a conversation back and forth” But how did she know the people she was chatting with were who they said they were?

Today, I am doing a story on a dissident newspaper that’s being printed and delivered around Damascus. I have been put in touch with a woman in the United States who says  she’s a member of the Syrian national council. So I interviewed her and then got in touch with two people the Guardian and the New York Times interviewed and said were members of the Syrian national council. I triangulated.

While social media helped dissidents get their message out, it also made it easier for security forces to identify dissidents who had revealed themselves on Facebook or Twitter.

Unless you are talking to people who use Twitter a lot and are being very transparent, the best thing is to take the safe route, take it off line and get their Skype account. That way you can just chat with them whenever. It’s much more informal and private.

Social media gave reporters the chance to check their sources in ways which were not available to journalists in the field.

If you are in the field and you are reporting a flood and you come across somebody who is knee deep in water and they tell you that they were also in Cyclone Tracy, you have no way of verifying that you have to take them at their word… In fact we had one case when this fellow wrote in and claimed his father a pathological liar who had never been in Darwin [for the cyclone]. In a way, the conversation about verification and social media is upside down. Social media is perhaps the best verification tool journalists have ever had. The number of sources that you can access in any given area, that may not be directly connected, enables you to triangulate in ways you can’t do on the ground. On Twitter you can do it. This blows the source field wide open.

Crowd sourcing could even be used to get accurate translations.

I organised the translation of  Saudi woman who drove and filmed herself and was then arrested. I crowd sourced translators ; a prominent Saudi woman blogger and then two other Arabic speakers. I fielded the first translation to a second person and then a third. It went through three translations to get a final one. And then I sent it back to the Saudi blogger to ask if it was right. She said, “Yes”. I don’t trust one person for anything. Not translations. Not source confirmation. It’s got to come from more than one person.

Twitter offered journalists more chances to immediately transmit news, even from within court rooms hearing complex and important cases. However, 24/7,  fast news was not novel to newsagency journalists. “Get It First, But First Get It Right” was the slogan of the International New Service (INS), founded by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst in 1909. The slogan is cited in print from 1923. The INS combined with the United Press in 1958 to form United Press International (UPI). News agency journalists knew that writing a “snap”, an instant one sentence news story, was the most challenging task they faced.

Immediacy is so tempting. Journalists just grab for it without sometimes doing the checking they should do. While being first is something we are taught to do, with social media we have to be even more cautious than we have been in the past….Jess Hill

Gary Kemble

According to the ABC’s Social Media Co-ordinator, Gary Kemble, ABC News integrated  tweeting duties with the main news desk, so the people sending the tweets were the same people crafting the ABC News website. “With statistics showing that more and more people are finding their news via their social networks, it has become more important than ever to provide a relevant, timely social media service,” Kemble said. This integration had a number of benefits, he said:

Speed: rather than Twitter being the optional extra at the end of the process, it’s the first thing producers do in a breaking news situation. By having the senior producers send the tweets, there were minimal barriers between the audience and the news.

Engagement: because ABC producers were sending tweets, they’re also monitoring Twitter for breaking news, tip-offs and feedback. While @abcnews was not a ‘talkative’ account, we do respond to audience concerns over inaccuracies in our coverage.

Relevancy: sending tweets manually meant full control of what was sent, and could make full use of the medium by adding hashtags.

Human touch: people appreciated knowing there’s a real person behind the account. Each morning the ABC early producer sent a ‘Good morning’ tweet and these human touches made a difference.

Twitter can be used by reporters to :

  • Identify and cultivate sources
  • Verify information
  • Maintain a continuim of reports on a major story
  • Update fellow reporters
  • Alert the audience to new developments
  • Encourage interactivity
  • Publicise reports
  • Grow audience



  1. Alan, where do you come down on this? “Twitter is often maligned as fast and simple chat for empty headed gossips,” seems to be your position publicly; at least it was at an AMIC conference? See new possibilities in social media? Cheers, RS

  2. Robert

    I reckon Jess Hill is showing us a way forward here. Twitter is clearly excellent for journalists developing sources, building links and most importantly creating networks. But its a little more problematic as a form of publishing. Quire frankly, most citizen journalists may not be up to the high professional standard required to write “snaps”.


  3. Twitter has proven in the field to be an excellent note taker, like a notepad. The reporter types notes as she’s talking to a source. The 140-character notes are picked up by an editor back in the newsroom, and they assemble a story using them, while the reporter remains in the field gathering more information. By the time the reporter gets back, the story is nearly done. She does a quick edit, adds more info, then files.

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