Breaking news events are chaotic. Early facts are unclear, reports from witnesses may differ and it can take time to get to the truth.
But journalists and news organisations are the public’s guiding hand in these situations and, when so much information now emerges on social media, newsrooms need to be well-drilled and ready to act.
“When a story breaks it can be very easy to lose the run of what’s going on,” said Joe Galvin, news editor for Europe at social newswire Storyful.
Get it wrong, and “panic can ensue”, mistakes are made and the facts are misrepresented.
Speaking at the recent First Draft Live event of training workshops broadcast from The New York Times, Galvin explained how Storyful are set up to cover breaking news, and the tools they use.
He recommended a three-person team to cover the key platforms on which reports and footage emerge: one person looking for material on Twitter, one on Facebook and Instagram, and a third monitoring YouTube, Reddit and local liveblogs.
These are the steps newsrooms need to take in the first five minutes, he said, to ensure there are streams of relevant information to monitor and have everyone on the same page.
At Storyful, journalists communicate regularly using Slack but also have a permanent Google Hangout active for when team members around the world might need to talk clearly about a story they are working on.
“Do not get into a situation where two or more journalists are doing the same thing,” he warned. “Before you know it you’ve lost 30 or 40 minutes looking at the same thing and then you’re behind.”
Twitter and Tweetdeck
Lists are the best way to monitor Twitter, Galvin said, and it is important to find or make a list around a specific location quickly, update it regularly and include as many official sources of information as possible.
“Unless you have official sources putting out information to inform reporting you’re going to be lost in a maze of misinformation,” he said.
One way to quickly find lists is to identify a prominent Twitter account from a specific location and add “/memberships” to the URL to show the lists that account is a member of. You can then monitor that list in Tweetdeck or, better still, copy it using the Twitter list copy tool and develop it further as your own.
In addition to Twitter lists, Galvin recommended setting up searches in Tweetdeck for specific words around the story, relevant hashtags, place names in multiple languages, names of any people involved and searching for geolocated tweets by place name or the lat/long co-ordinates.
A simple search for the Shenandoah “National Park wildfires may look like:
“rocky mount fire” OR “rockymountfire” OR “shenandoah” OR “skyline drive”
You can then filter the searches to remove retweets, and include only Tweets with videos, pictures or livestreams from Periscope, for example, to find emerging videos from the scene of an event.
With practice, all this can be set up in the first few minutes by the team member working on Twitter, said Galvin, to have “two or three columns with your curated Twitter list, a search column throwing up tweets with videos and another with images, or whatever you may need.”
Facebook and Instagram
With over 1.5 billion monthly active users, Facebook is still the biggest social network so cannot be ignored in breaking news situations, said Galvin.
Searching Facebook is not easy, however. Searches inside Facebook itself are often sorted algorithmically relevant to the specific user, so Galvin recommended using Facebook’s new Signal search platform, created with journalists in mind.
You need to apply for access but, once logged in, users are presented with trending posts and topics, curated by Storyful and content discovery service Crowdtangle, and search functions for both Facebook and Instagram. Signal also offers information around public figures and events, but weighted heavily towards a US audience.
Searching for specific locations in the normal Facebook search and filtering by “Page” is a great way to find community or activist groups which may have information on a story, Galvin said, especially in the Middle East. He also recommended searching for local news outlets local to a story then looking at the “visitor posts” section of their Facebook Page, as local audiences may be sharing information there.
“Local residents are going to have a connection with their local newsroom,” he said, so “they’re going to be sending those guys [reports and imagery] exclusively. It doesn’t appear in searches so this is the only way to see it.”
Instagram is “very useful in the early stages of a breaking news event” and posts are often tagged to specific locations, making it easier to find and verify.
YouTube, Reddit and local liveblogs
Although YouTube is now less popular than some other platforms, it is still a prominent source of video for news stories, especially from the Middle East.
Galvin recommended searching for local keywords relevant to a story on YouTube, being mindful of any languages involved, and filtering the results by the date they were uploaded.
Montage is intended as a platform for people to work together in finding and verifying videos on YouTube with a “better search functionality” than searching on the platform directly, filtering by specific dates and locations.
Users can collect videos around a story and mark out specific events or landmarks to note or discuss, adding comments and collaborating on their use.
Storyful journalists also use the RSS reader Feedly to keep track of trusted YouTube channels, sorted into folders around specific locations.
“So if something happens in Afghanistan, I can go to Feedly, click on the Afghanistan folder and have a list of channels that we have verified in the past, that we have contact details for, and I can reach out if needed,” he said.
Local live blogs are becoming increasingly important to monitor in breaking news situations, Galvin added, as audiences will often share information with the local outlets they know and trust.
During the Brussels attacks, Le Soir received original videos from eyewitnesses which Storyful journalists tracked down to secure the use of.
And on Reddit, users establish “megathreads” around big breaking news stories “almost all the time”, said Galvin, where people discuss the story and post content they have taken themselves.
“Everything said on Reddit obviously has to be taken with a pinch of salt,” he said, “but it’s a very useful thing to monitor for early tip offs.”
While it is important to react quickly to a breaking news event and establish how information is found on social media, journalists must be “extra vigilant” in breaking news to verify reports and footage.
“Inevitably in any breaking news situation, in the first 15 to 20 mins you will see fake content being shared. Most commonly it will be old content shared as new.”
Major news organisations have made “serious errors” during every big news event over the last year, said Galvin, from attacks in Brussels and Paris to shootings in Oregon and San Bernardino.
“I’m not just talking about embarrassment,” he said, “but about potential legal ramifications. You have to be very careful and particularly careful with names and identities.”
If the first steps in a breaking news situation are to set up streams on various networks to find reports and material emerging around a story, the next step is to verify it. Then if a report is deemed real and useful, journalists need to speak to an uploader in an appropriate, sensitive manner, Galvin said.
“For high value pieces of content these guys are getting hundreds of emails, hundreds of phone calls, thousands of tweets,” he said, “and it can be very overwhelming.”
He recommended taking conversations away from a public platform – to direct messages, email or preferably on the phone – and having a list of people in an organisation who speak specific languages who may be able to help.
Breaking news situations can be very sensitive though, he said, and recommended reviewing Eyewitness Media Hub’s guiding principles for contacting eyewitnesses.
Videos from the most recent #FDLive in New York will be available soon. Until then you can see the full, unedited version of the livestream on YouTube.