Hurricane Sandy flooding

Flood waters enter the Long Island Rail Road's West Side Yard

Credit: Image by MTA Long Island Rail Road on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
During Hurricane Sandy people flocked to social media platforms to search and share the latest information on the impact of the storm. Similarly journalists were also busy scouring and speaking to communities on social sites, in an effort to gather, validate and push out information.

In the days following the storm we spoke to social media and user generated content experts from the Guardian US, Associated Press and Storyful to discuss the challenges which presented themselves when searching the social web during Hurricane Sandy, particularly in relation to events in New York, the lessons it taught them and others and the way it reinforced the role of journalists in verifying information as quickly as possible.

"It was a crazy task, I think, for the whole industry to kind of take on the internet that night," Katie Rogers, social news editor for the Guardian US told Journalism.co.uk.

When news breaks in 'the social media capital of the world'

It was a crazy task, I think, for the whole industry to kind of take on the internet that nightKatie Rogers, Guardian US
Monitoring social media communications in a city like New York presented journalists with both a vast amount of information being shared on the social web, as well as a large, connected community.

Managing editor of Storyful Markham Nolan said "the volume was incredible" on social media platforms. "We'd never seen anything like that before".

"It was just the sheer volume and the sheer noise of something like that hitting a place like New York which is basically the social media capital of the world".

He added: "Because you had more people who are equipped to share more content there I think it really drove home across the media sphere the importance of finding the right stuff because there's so much fake stuff being shared.

"Most were not maliciously, but accidentally, just exuberant sharers pushing out photos, videos and stuff that was basically not from the time."

Fergus Bell, AP's new international social media and UGC editor, added that New York is a "very connected area", and as a result "people are very switched on to technology and very aware of the news".

"So I think that was slightly different from other events where you might not hit one of the most media-savvy cities in the world'.

But, as he explained, this "did present it's own problems".

"Where we've seen these big events before it's been in the Middle East, or in Asia ... they weren't necessarily using it already and so this is the first event where we've really seen it in a huge coverage area and so many people who are connected."

The other issue was that due to the volume of content being circulated online, in some cases the additional context of the original was not also being shared.

"We're really keen on making sure that we get permission to use material and find that original source ... this event showed another reason why it's so important to do that and that's because you need to find out the information around the images and by talking to the people and by tracing those people we're able to really verify things so much more thoroughly."

The 'minefield' of fake images

Images in particular formed a significant element of the content being shared on social platforms during the storm. According to the Telegraph there were more than 500,000 photos shared via Instagram with a Sandy hashtag. The Telegraph also reports that Jeff Sonderman of the Poynter Institute said Instagram "was posting 10 pictures of the storm per second".

The issue of fake images being shared online was "a bigger minefield than we've had to navigate before", Bell said.

"That was a challenge that we'd not necessarily seen before, people going out there to completely game the system. They know that news organisations are going out there to get this stuff, or looking for it because it's a valuable eye on the event, but we had to navigate that minefield and that was a bigger minefield than we've had to navigate before."

What was interesting was watching some of the comments back and forth, even from very well respected journalists being incredibly cautious, more cautious than they would normally have been I think because it was their home territoryMarkham Nolan, Storyful
Nolan added though that the questioning of images was also "at a level I'd never seen before".

"What was interesting was watching some of the comments back and forth, even from very well respected journalists being incredibly cautious, more cautious than they would normally have been I think because it was their home territory.

"For us, as outsiders, we didn't apply any higher bar, it was the high bar that we always apply."

Rogers said the storm presented an important "learning experience" for many journalists, both those who were already experienced in social media verification, as well as those who were new to the techniques.

"Learning how to sort through this information of extremely high volume in real-time was definitely I would say a learning curve for people who aren't used to it, and for people who are used to it, who do it a lot like me or the livebloggers, or the community managers, it was certainly a test to our skills."

Not only did we try to sort through the information and sort the good from the bad, but we put the bad on display so other people wouldn't share itKatie Rogers, Guardian US
To build on this the Guardian US started to collect photos confirmed as being fake, and "tried to get the word out" to avoid re-sharing.

"Not only did we try to sort through the information and sort the good from the bad, but we put the bad on display so other people wouldn't share it."

Interestingly Nolan identified a "shift in balance" between the finding of facts "to holding back forfeits" in journalism. "In situations like Sandy the majority of the work is actually holding back the stuff that's not true," he added.

During the storm the Atlantic blogged about images and their authenticity. Looking ahead Storyful is now considering building an internal archive of fake images to help make quick cross references in the future, similar to the way the Atlantic blogged about images during the storm.

"What you saw during Sandy was fake photos emerging that had been used several times, the storm photos that had cropped up as fakes in previous storms... so archiving those and making a repository of fakes is probably going to be a good idea so that when things do pop-up you have something to very quickly cross-reference it against."

Maximising 'the old faithfuls' of the social web

With some warning of the impending storm, news outlets were able to prepare sources to a certain degree, using tools such as Twitter lists to build resource networks ahead of time.

"We knew where this was going to hit ... and if you start to build up your lists of resources ahead of time, the ones that you know are going to be alerting, going to be communicating very regularly, you just build up nice, little clustered lists," Nolan explained.

"So we had one for New York, one for New Jersey, and StoryfulPro was tweeting out links to these lists as useful resources for everyone and we update those as we go."

He added that the events also helped highlight "the power of using YouTube livestreaming" in certain news situations, as demonstrated by The Weather Channel.

Nolan said that the storm and other recent live events "have driven home the power of YouTube livestreaming and when to switch that on, knowing when to switch that on and then when to say 'right, the story's done, we'll back off'."

As well as Twitter and YouTube he also cited the use of other "reliables" such as Facebook and Instagram, adding that "in a disaster situation are probably not in the frame of mind where they're trying out new stuff and experimenting".

"I think it was about consolidating old techniques and just I think higher level of collaboration and a higher speed."

Rogers also said the focus was on the "old faithfuls" such as Twitter and Facebook, and using them well. She and others used Facebook interest lists, for example, to curate news sources.

"For breaking news Facebook is sometimes really great because you can get these really amazing images that are usually nine times out of ten vetted by the news sources already sharing them," she added.

The Guardian also searched its own comment threads for information, maintaining both "on-site and off-site social" monitoring which could then be fed into its liveblog.

"I really thought that Twitter did such an amazing job, it gave us everything we were looking for in terms of not only just using photos or tweets, but following up with these people, they're so much more wired in and mobile than they used to be."

Another platform highlighted by Bell was Reddit, which he said was the first time he had used the platform for a breaking news story.

"We'd been using Reddit for a while, but in terms of a source for news gathering from an event, Reddit for the coverage out of the East Coast of the US was really good for us because there are a lot of people using Reddit there."

Similarly AP also looked to platforms such as YouTube and Twitter for information.

Lessons for the future

To prepare for similar news events in the future Bell said journalists need to be clear on their standards and processes for verification in advance.

"That way when the event does happen everyone knows what they're doing and everyone is expecting it and everyone makes it a part of what they're going to be doing and you're not deciding on how you're going to verify something or who you need to talk to to do that as the event is unfolding.

Know your processes for verification and it's really tempting to cut corners but if you've set it out in advance, you know that it works and you don't need to cut corners because you've set it up in a way that will work for the situationFergus Bell, AP
"It makes it a lot easier to adapt to things like power outages, and it makes you be able to work out the best process in a calm environment which when you apply to a hectic environment ... you know it's a solid plan.

"So I would just say know your processes for verification and it's really tempting to cut corners but if you've set it out in advance, you know that it works and you don't need to cut corners because you've set it up in a way that will work for the situation."

Another lesson taken away from coverage of Hurricane Sandy was the importance of collaboration, openness and sharing, Nolan added.

"I think because of the nature of the disaster, the nature of the way everyone reacted to it, there was a naturally collaborative environment across the board in terms of sharing information because it was New Yorkers helping New Yorkers, not just journalists competing with journalists.

"It made it a much more real, live news event because people weren't hoarding or hiding information, they were sharing it."

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