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Summary:

Those who see Twitter as a powerful tool for real-time journalism have another example of how it can be done: New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has posted a thoughtful account of how he used Twitter to report on the aftermath of a tornado in Missouri.

Birdhouses
photo: See-ming Lee

Updated: Anyone who has been following the protests and revolutions in the Middle East for the past few months has probably heard of Andy Carvin, the NPR editor who has been using Twitter to curate news from the region. A number of journalists — both from traditional media and “citizen journalists” — have also used the real-time information network to report from conflict zones such as Libya and disaster areas such as Haiti. Now those who see Twitter as a powerful tool for real-time journalism have another example of how it can be done: New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has posted a thoughtful and compelling account of how he used Twitter to report on the aftermath of the recent tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

In his post, Stelter describes how he was woefully under-prepared for reporting on his first disaster for the newspaper. Among other things, he didn’t even bring a pen, and his shoes got soaked within hours of being in the tornado-struck region (something he says his mother chewed him out about later). On top of those issues, Stelter also writes about how the cellular telephone system was almost unusable because of the damage, so he resorted to sending virtually everything via text message, and to posting his observations about the effects of the disaster on Twitter.

I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces. Some of the texts didn’t send, but most did. Practically speaking, text messages were my only way to relay information.

As he walked around the town trying to determine how many people had been injured and find people to interview, Stelter kept posting his thoughts and observations to Twitter, whether they were about his own shock at the carnage or simply facts about the destruction and the response of the local residents and authorities. He also describes how he tried to get the New York Times to incorporate his Twitter feed into the coverage, because it was the most real-time version of those events, and then he says:

Looking back, I think my best reporting was on Twitter.

This is an incredible admission for a New York Times reporter to make in some ways, but even more evidence of how the media business and the process of journalism are being disrupted by these new tools. And it’s also interesting to me that Stelter didn’t just post his thoughts and observations about the disaster on Twitter (which he has since archived here), but he also posted updates and photos to his Tumblr blog, and through the mobile image-sharing service Instagram, which is where I first saw them.

Other New York Times writers have used social media well, the most famous of which is foreign correspondent Nicholas Kristof, who has used both Twitter and Facebook to great effect in writing about events in Afghanistan as well as Libya and elsewhere. That Stelter has made use of Twitter and a personal Tumblr blog and Instagram — i.e., three things that are not controlled by the New York Times in any way, nor hosted by the newspaper — seems like a significant event to me (I asked Stelter whether he got approval from the NYT to do this and will post a response if I get one: Update: Brian said that he didn’t ask for permission because “prior experiences” assured him it wouldn’t be a problem).

It’s not surprising that Stelter might be the one most willing to experiment with a new form of reporting, since he has written about a number of new-media ventures in his time at the paper — including a Media Decoder blog post about how Andy Carvin had turned his Twitter stream into a one-man news wire service about the turmoil in the Middle East. Not only that, but before he joined the NYT, the young writer was already well-known for his blog about the media industry, which routinely broke stories other mainstream media outlets could not, before Stelter had even graduated from university.

Although I have been critical of the Times in the past for their persistent lack of links and what I think is the defensive move of launching a paywall, there are encouraging signs that the paper is becoming more open to the social web: It has begun experimenting with Tumblr, among other things, and has also moved to turn its Twitter feed into a human-curated stream instead of just a robotic posting system. Perhaps Stelter’s example will encourage the NYT to experiment even more with these kinds of tools — and then the Times in turn could encourage other media outlets to do so.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and Yan Arief Purwanto

  1. Cool, I like & use Twitter too… (@jpb555) it just disturbs me when people are trapped in the wreckage of their home and potentially dying that so many pairs of helpful hands are tweeting?

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    1. If you look at the post, you will see that Brian also helped out in many ways while he was in Joplin.

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  2. Brian’s coverage of stuff was brilliant to watch, sitting at home in England it was incredible that he was able to relay the situation in real time. I think what always strikes me (having done some live coverage of protests using social media myself) is how simple these tools really are – all they do is allow a wider audience to participate in the conversation. Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter combined to make a brilliantly simple yet rich way to share ongoing information.

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    1. Totally agree, Joseph — thanks for the comment.

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  3. Your post got me wondering about how journalists from the past would’ve used Twitter to tell their stories. In particular, what would Ernie Pyle have tweeted?

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    1. I’ve wondered the same thing, Michael — Ernie Pyle or anyone at the Battle of the Bulge or the Alamo or Paschendale, etc. Fascinating to think about. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. Not surprising (in a good way) since Stelter was a pioneer blogger whom the NYT bought because it could not build him.

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    1. Agreed, John — I think David Carr has described Brian as a cyborg built by the New York Times to save its future :-)

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  5. buyer beware Saturday, May 28, 2011

    How many hours did you follow this story for? It’s hopelessly inefficient and impractical if you have five minutes and want to know what’s happened in the world while you’ve been at work or college.

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  6. Great to see that technology and (free) speech keep finding they each other.

    It’s not just web 2.0 era phenomena, this reminded me about IRC and how it was used during Soviet Union collapsing when there was very little communication channels to outside world.

    As an example see http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/academic/communications/logs/report-ussr-gorbatchev for a log from the period.

    It’s good to see that both people and communication networks are flexible enough to find some way, technology or a protocol to convey information when the situation is less than optimal. And that probably has been going on already before IT.

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