Between the Budget and the march I’ve been doing a fair bit of live tweeting over the last week or so. Here are the principles I follow when I’m doing this sort of live reporting, wbether it’s live on the ground at a breaking news event or curating in front of a screen in the office.
Pick a hashtag. Most big events organically end up with two or three hashtags at least – #march26, #26march, for instance. A few, like the Egypt protests, end up unified behind one (#jan25) with others appearing and disappearing from time to time (#tahrir). Official organisations, if they know what they’re doing, will tend to tell people in advance of an organised event what tag they’re using (HM Treasury used #budget11) but often large numbers of other tweeters will decide to use a different one (#budget2011). Pick yours and tell people which one it is – but don’t be afraid to change it as long as you tell people why.
Find sources. Work out who’s there, who’s reporting, who’s involved. If you can get non-Twitter contact details for some of them, so much the better – that way if they suddenly go dark you have another way to find out what’s happened, and you can get in touch directly for more detailed reports if you need them.
Know your sources. Finding eye-witnesses is relatively easy. Working out whose reports you can trust is much harder. Try and get some background on your go-to people, understand their perspective a little – sometimes this is as simple as reading a few pages back in their Twitter timeline, or checking their bio, or Googling them. Bear in mind, as you would with sources you’re interviewing, their likely biases and the slant they’re likely to put on information.
Use Twitter lists. Once I’ve IDed potential sources I use private lists to curate eye-witness reports. On the ground, there isn’t often time to update these as events progress, but having a go-to list of people whose words you trust and who are reporting live can be immensely useful in making sure you’re up to date. Back at the desk, curating eye-witness lists can ensure you’re among the first to be aware when a situation changes.
Use search wisely. If something big is breaking, you can usually pinpoint it quickly using http://search.twitter.com – and if you’re looking for particular pieces of information, or pictures, or opinions, you can use search operators to pinpoint further. For instance, “#march26 -RT” brings back tweets tagged #march26 that are not retweets. “#budget2011 ?” finds questions about the Budget (which you might be able to answer). “libya :(” finds negative sentiment tweets which mention Libya. You can also use near: and within: to get location-tagged tweets. Here’s a complete list of search operators.
Stay balanced. Think about your personal biases, whatever they are, and be aware of how they’re likely to affect your reporting. Read up on confirmation bias and think about whether you’d trust something or retweet it if it was saying the opposite of what it says. Think about your use of language and avoid over- or under-dramatising a situation.
Attribute. If you saw something yourself with your own eyes, tweet it as is. Everything else needs an attribution. Use new-style retweets for eye-witness information that you can verify or from sources you trust.
Verify. And if you can’t verify, clarify. Try not to get carried away with the moment. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, or too bad, it often is. Beware of tweeting things that agree with the way you want the story to pan out. Be aware of your storyteller’s instinct that will bias you towards neat resolutions (like Mubarak’s resignation, which was pre-emptively reported at least twice). Find original sources, ask for confirmation and clarification, and if you accidentally tweet something untrue, correct yourself.
On the ground
Be openminded. Decide where you’re going and why. Think about the issues you want to report, and work out a plan to do that to the best of your ability. But go with an open mind, and be prepared to change your focus if events change.
Go well equipped. Spare batteries if you can get them. More pens than you know what to do with. Spare notebook. Spare spare notebook. Chargers, in case you can get to a plug socket. Comfortable shoes. Dress warmly but smartly. Enough food, and then some extra food. And bananas if you’re likely to be on your feet for any length of time (seriously, I learned this by fighting the undead for 8 hours at a time).
Have a plan for what happens if your connection goes down. I spent large parts of the march through Whitehall frantically texting my Twitter updates in via SMS, taking pics to stack up for later tweets, and talking to people with my notebook out.
Think detail. Think colour. Think little moments that only you saw, snippets of the larger whole. Don’t try to encompass everything; pick out what’s unusual in your field of view and frame it succinctly.
Take pictures. Geotagged images uploaded in real time are an easy way for someone to verify that you’re a reliable source. They don’t have to be beautiful, though it helps if you’ve a good eye for an image and you have the kit to take something striking. But iPhone images work just fine, as do most Android and Blackberry models. Look for moments, and capture them. And if that moment is “holy crap the cops are beating up kids”, remember that a picture, however grainy and hurried, is evidence that your words alone can’t provide.
Use audio if it’s appropriate. Audioboo, for instance, is a great tool for short snippets of speech with ambient noise. But its efficiency and use depends on how good your kit is (do you have a microphone?) and the ambient noise (believe me when I say that vuvuzelas under a bridge are not conducive to effective audio). And remember upload time, battery life, connection speed. Balance your resources.
Think about video. If it’s not your primary task to bring back raw footage, then bear in mind that 30-second snippets of video uploaded straight from the ground can tell fantastic stories – but that comes at a price. It’s likely, if you’re like me, that any decent kit you have is focused on keeping you connected and not on shooting gorgeous scenes, so work within the limitations of your kit. Balance whether the images you’re seeing are worth the trouble, the time and the battery life that video takes, and balance whether it’s worth trying to upload to YouTube or a similar site while you’re on scene. Remember that uploading takes time, too. And bear in mind that if all you have are talking heads, audio plus a picture might be better.
Take time out to catch up. You’ll be caught up in events a lot of the time, and that’s fine. But when you get chance, stop and check the hashtag. Stay aware of what’s happening elsewhere – both in terms of where you should be and what people will want to know.
Don’t forget the notebook. Tech breaks. Shorthand doesn’t. People who don’t want to be recorded will let you write things down. And a notebook is still a visual shorthand for print journalism, in some crowds – and being visible can be useful.
Remember you can’t cover everything. You’re part of the event, and you can only report your part of what’s going on. It’s OK to let go of the bigger picture while it’s happening – in fact, if you want to report well where you are, you have to do it. Yes, it’s hard.
Don’t be reckless. Don’t put yourself in needless danger, and don’t charge away from a big story to chase a sexy one unless it’s justified.
At the desk
Monitor. Even though you’ll probably only use one hashtag, remember the others. I use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck depending on my mood to set up a monitoring dashboard and keep an eye on incoming tweets, with columns for my mentions and as many other hashtags and searches as I can think of. I’ll also tend to use “-RT” to strip retweet noise out, but I’ll generally include a column specifically for RTs with links, so that I don’t miss big-news images or new sources in the excitement.
Aggregate and curate. Collect stuff together, pick the best bits, and re-broadcast them. Add value by providing a stream of the best information available. Think like an editor.
Use outside sources. If you’re not stuck in the moment, then you have access to sources who are outside the Twittersphere. That can mean TV news, other journalists’ reports, official organisations, and so on. In Norfolk I covered a breaking news story of a train/car crash in tandem with another reporter – I was at the desk while she went to the scene of the incident to chase quotes. That meant I had access to the emergency services press offices as information filtered out, and could keep the story up to date while she spoke to witnesses and got pictures. There are always people who have interesting things to add to the conversation who aren’t on Twitter.
Connect individuals. The folks you’re seeing in your timeline might need information. You might see them ask questions. If you can answer them, or point them in the direction of someone who can, then do so. Be helpful. Be useful.
Refute. Sometimes, people tweet bollocks, either because they have something to gain by doing so or because they believed a rumour. (Or, sometimes, for the lulz.) Don’t be tempted to believe something because it sounds like it ought to be true or because you want the story to work out a certain way. If you spot something you know to be wrong, correct it, and cc the person who made the original claim.
Keep it factual – at least, during the event. If people are using Twitter to share information, adding opinion into the mix can be confusing and add to the noise. If you’ve got a relevant piece of reporting, a pic or a video or a news item to share, share it, but don’t use (for instance) a hashtag sharing information about the protests in Yemen as a hook for your opinion piece about left-wing support for violent intervention in dictatorships.
Question everything. Ask questions on the hashtag about things that aren’t clear. Ask why things are happening. Ask questions of the information that’s streaming past you and of the individuals providing it. Don’t assume.