Readers Learn a Lot From Brian Stelter’s Joplin Tweets

Reading the New York Times’ Brian Stelter’s tweets from Joplin, Missouri helps one really see how this social media outlet can give reporters a very useful outlet for breaking news.

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As one who is pretty immersed in and enamored with how Twitter is used by journalists, I was especially intrigued by the New York Times’ Brian Stelter’s retrospective  last week on his experience covering the aftermath of the Joplin tornado.

Brian Stelter's BusinessInsider Photo

“My best reporting was on Twitter,” Stelter said. “But only up until a certain point on Monday.”

When I saw this, I thought – WELL, the only way to really judge what’s better and what’s best is to look at the tweets themselves.

While Stelter provided an archive of his own tweets,  they don’t tell the full story of this reporter who actually was tweeting on the Joplin, Tornado many hours before he arrived in Joplin.

Also, to truly understand the chronological context for the tweets, one has to see the time stamp.    After a few days, the time stamp is only visible with a mouseover in Twitter.

One of my colleagues here at the University of Alabama, Natalie Brown, has become an expert at analyzing tweets. She and I have an ongoing research project that involves looking back at tweets over a series of months.

I thought perhaps reading through Brian Stelter’s 140-character missives for just a day would help me become at least half as adept at analyzing tweets as Brown.

Here’s what I learned from analyzing Brian Stelter’s Tweets

The STATS

Total Number of Tweets from Joplin: 97 (if you include just the ones that Stelter initiated)

Total Number of Exchanges While in Joplin with Readers: 3

GRAND Total of Tweets: 100

The hour of the day when Brian tweeted the most: 5 p.m. hour on Tuesday, May 23.

Overnight Tweets Help

While Brian seems to think that after 11 p.m., his best work was what he was filing to the New York Times Web site or preparing for A1 in next day’s edition, I think there was tremendous value in the tweets that came overnight.

Certainly, the opportunity for great photos diminishes in darkness and there aren’t as many great stories in those less-active hours of the day.

The late night hours were when Stelter had his most interesting exchanges with Twitter followers.

Two readers challenged him on his statements about his work on the stories for the NYTimes.com site and his naming of a particular auto company in his tweets.

This is not unlike other media outlets that operate around the clock.

Full disclosure: I used to produce morning newscasts in a Top Ten media market and am very familiar with the viewers/audience members who are still up in the wee hours of the morning who will call to engage you on your news product both online and on the air.

Now, with Twitter, our audience engages with us more easily all day– 24/7.

Stelter Struck a Balance

The lack of a stable Internet connection (as we had here in Tuscaloosa in the first few hours after the April 27th tornado) forced Stelter to do storytelling on his iPhone– a mobile reporting device with which more and more of our journalism students are bringing to class.

  • He established a balance between telling what he’s seeing and SHOWING what he’s seeing.
  • He gave Twitter followers a glimpse of the sausage-making (as we like to call) that happens as we as journalists GATHER the news.
  • Sometimes making the reporting process visible as it’s happening is warranted and I would argue, even preferred.
  • We didn’t see was a lot of promotion of updates on the NYTimes.com Web site.   (I fear that if there were a stable connection, we might have seen more of that self-promotion and less gathering and writing.)
  • It’s natural for us to use Twitter to share what we’ve posted online (I do it several times a day).   But, what we saw in these tweets was the value of the tweets as reporting product themselves.
  • Last, but not least, Stelter did not invest a lot of time in Re-tweeting what other folks were doing in the field. He was too busy gathering information and getting it out.

I DO Agree with Stelter that  it would be best if  there were a “Get Me Rewrite” kind of person like I’m told newspapers had years ago when reporters would phone in their stories.

The harsh reality

Most reporters have not figured out the balance between tweeting what you’re reporting and working on the writing of the core reporting product- a TV story, a story for the web or for the next day’s newspaper.

We want to bring our Twitter followers with us through the process, but we haven’t quite figured out how to do that.

OUR NEXT STEP: Compare some of tweets of others covering the Joplin Tornado to Stelter’s to see how their observations differed.  And for the academic researchers reading this post– that’s an opportunity for scholarly inquiry here when one compares the tweets to what’s ending up in the newspaper or on the next newscast.

Thanks to Brian’s hard work, we’re a little bit closer to understanding what to do in efforts to understand the link between Twitter and journalism.


Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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