How Twitter can help break news

A 3.0 magnitude earthquake sent tremors throughout the Roanoke Valley early Saturday morning, and the first people to report it were those posting tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter.

It’s no secret that Twitter can be a great tool for journalists. In fact, I remember reading a blog entry about two years ago by technology evangelist Rob Scoble about a similar situation in Mexico. He wrote:

How did I find out about the Mexico City Earthquake? On Twitter. As soon as people started reporting it on Twitter, I looked at the USGS maps. The Twitterers beat the USGS by several minutes.

That’s exactly what I found here in Roanoke Saturday. When I was awoken by a combination of vibrations and a loud noise – and after I checked the house to make sure everything was okay – I immediately checked Twitter, by using search.twitter.com for the two keywords “earthquake” and “Roanoke”. Within five minutes of the shaking, people were tweeting.

santoroski (4:13 a.m.): Just got woken up by a giant boom in Roanoke. Wonder what it was.

mcgheeiv (4:16 a.m.):  is looking for information about the earthquake in Roanoke.

pacarrell (4:18 a.m.):  Seismic activity in Roanoke, Va? Earthquake? Just a shiver? Yes, Virginia, the earth moved for me, too.

With anecdotal confirmation that others had experienced what I did — that it wasn’t just something related to my house or block – I went to usgs.gov to see what kind of information was available. I had no idea if they reported earthquakes live, as, for example, VDOT does in Virginia for traffic.

I found that they do indeed report earthquakes live, or at least soon after the actual quake. But when I checked around 4:20 a.m., there was nothing about anything in Roanoke.

I submitted my experience on a form called “Did You Feel It?“, where users can submit their reports from the quake and have them plotted on a community map.

But as Rob reported in Mexico, the tweets beat U.S. Geological Survey by at least 20 minutes.

Which is not to say that the USGS didn’t do a good job. To the contrary, I was amazed and impressed not only by how quickly they confirmed and reported the earthquake, but also how thorough and open their information was.

Around 4:35 a.m., 27 minutes after the quake, the USGS had confirmed the earthquake and had a preliminary summary posted. The page initially listed the quake’s magnitude (which was originally said to be a 2.6), the exact time (4:08 a.m.), the estimated location (listed by latitude and longitude, as well as distances from major locations, i.e. 3 miles from Roanoke), the margin of error for the location and some scientific data about the event that I don’t even understand.

The confirmation and information provided by the USGS allowed my editor and I at The Roanoke Times to post a tweet by 4:39 a.m.:

roanoketimes (4:39 a.m.): U.S. Geological Survey confirms 2.6 magnitude earthquake in Roanoke at 4:08 a.m. Saturday. Epicenter: Cave Spring. // http://bit.ly/X49kB

Shortly minutes after that, we posted a brief on roanoke.com and posted similar information on our Roanoke Times Facebook page.

The combination of those Twitter users letting me know that what I had experienced was not an isolated event and the USGS being so proactive and technologically forthcoming with information allowed The Roanoke Times / roanoke.com to be the first to break the news.

This was important for several reasons:

  • Roanoke hasn’t had an earthquake in at least several decades, so this was potentially, um, groundbreaking. (Get it?)
  • Being able to get the news out so quickly, through the post, a breaking news e-mail and tweets of our own allowed us to assuage some fears about what had happened.
  • And hey – it’s never a bad thing when we can say, “We broke it first.”

It was important to post tweets about the earthquake, in addition to the traditional brief and breaking news e-mail. Since I had originally seen so many tweets about the earthquake, posting accurate and official information in that same forum was extremely important. Twitter users immediately saw the post and began “retweeting” it – sharing it with others.

This was a great example of how the Internet allowed us to effectively calm concerns and get the necessary information out there. If I had not seen those first tweets, I might not have followed-up on the story with such immediacy. And if the USGS’s website wasn’t so helpful, accurate and speedy, doubt over what had happened would have lingered much longer, potentially sparking rumors and fear.

This is all to say – Twitter can be an enormously helpful tool for journalists to find immediate information about breaking news – fires, wrecks, natural disasters, etc. Posts from Twitter should – and I hope this is obvious – always be confirmed through official sources. But they can provide a context with which to being your reporting.

And having a presence on Twitter for your news organization allows you to get the news out in a medium people are already using. Sure, you should post a brief to your website, send out an e-mail/SMS message/etc. But you should also reach out to users where they already spend time – Twitter, Facebook – even Digg.

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