Finding sources, nurturing contacts and checking facts by phone have long been key to successful journalism. This guide on using social media to research stories outlines the many ways reporters can put those traditional journalism skills into practice on social media platforms.
The first problem in searching is one of noise. According to figures from March, more than 1 billion tweets were being posted every three days, so how can journalists sort the social media chaos and find contacts and stories?
This guide gathers tips from Malachy Browne, news editor of social news gathering agency Storyful; David Wyllie, an editor at Breaking News, a social media breaking news service owned by NBC News; and investigative journalist and trainer in advanced online research skills Colin Meek.
1. Organise the chaos
"The most important thing to do is to build systems of information and sources around your areas of interest," Browne said.
"There are various ways in which you can build these systems: you can use RSS feeds, you can join specialist groups on Facebook, connect with other professionals in your areas of interest on Facebook and on Twitter, subscribe to various accounts that put videos up on YouTube."
Journalism.co.uk spoke to Browne on Thursday 13 September as he was monitoring protests at foreign embassies in Yemen and elsewhere by using Twitter client TweetDeck which was displaying "a couple of dozen columns".
There are a two main ways to organise information into columns on TweetDeck: Twitter lists and search terms.
2. Create Twitter lists
David Wyllie from Breaking News and Malachy Browne from Storyful both advise organising contacts into Twitter lists.
Sources can be organised into lists around countries, source-type, topic or beat, and tweets from those people can then be displayed in a single column in TweetDeck or another Twitter client.
"Lists really provide clues as to what is happening in a particular place and time and act as a sort of a representative sample," Browne said.
"Putting together a list is quite difficult," Wyllie added. "We tend to keep them more generalised rather than by being too specific for each country."
But although Wyllie advocates the use of lists, he says that retaining partial chaos is helpful. We spoke to Wyllie on Friday 14 September when he was monitoring Twitter for signs of protests following the controversial film trailer that offended some Muslims by disparaging the Prophet Muhammad.
"I like to have a little bit of chaos," Wyllie explained. "I don't like to be too regimented in my Twitter lists as I like to see several countries at once and then make my own choice about what I want to zero in on."You should be able to see the whole picture but then choose to zoom in when you wantDavid Wyllie
"My advice to people would be not to strictly limit themselves to a list of countries but to try and build up people in all of the countries and then have people to go to as soon as something erupts in any of them.
"You should be able to see the whole picture but then choose to zoom in when you want."
3. Create Facebook lists
In a similar way to how you can organise key Twitter contacts into lists, Facebook pages can be organised into lists, Browne said. And there is no need to 'like' the page, which can be helpful when using your Facebook account for both personal and professional purposes.
You can create lists by finding a Facebook page you want to add, go to the 'message' dropdown and 'add to interest lists...' and select '+ new list'.
4. Set up searches in TweetDeck
In addition to lists, journalists can use search within TweetDeck or another desktop Twitter client in order to see streams of news around a topic.
For example, by using the 'add column' + button in TweetDeck, you can set up a hashtag search stream, use quotes to find an exact phrase (such as "Johnston Press") and use 'OR' to display an alternative keyword or phrase.
"If the simplest term in Libya or Yemen or Benghazi is the place name, that's probably what people will be using."
He also said journalists should be aware of hashtags and terms that those tweeting are less likely to be using.
"They won't be using a controversial hashtag and they'll tend not to be using anything specific to an event such as 'US embassy attack' or 'US consulate attack'; that's a very journalistic way of dividing something up."
"It's very important when you are searching to put yourself in the shoes of the citizen journalist or reporter on the ground," Wyllie added.They may not be describing something in Benghazi as 'Benghazi' because they take it as a given that their social network, the people that they engage with, know they are in BenghaziMalachy Browne
Browne points out that those sharing social media posts may not use the country or city name.
"They may not be describing something in Benghazi as 'Benghazi' because they take it as a given that their social network, the people that they engage with, know they are in Benghazi.
"They might use a street name, they might use the name of a building, they might use a local term. So it's very important to have intelligent systems of monitoring so that you know where you can tap in to find those keywords that you need to be using to search."
Browne also suggests following the chain of information which follows from the drilled-down search. "Using the results of your searches is really important," he said.
The new, resulting information may be in another language, which is where Google Translate can be used.
"It might be in Arabic and putting that into Google Translate then allows you to select certain phrases from that original Arabic caption on a photo or whatever it might be and you can then put them into search engines and social media platforms and that can yield even further results that are hopefully more localised."
5. Use Twitter's advanced search
Investigative journalist Colin Meek advises using TweetDeck to monitor an ongoing situation. "Keep your search broad to begin with and see what terms are being used. For example, it might be one street that keeps being mentioned or one square."
Once you have your new keyword, such as in Browne's illustration above, you then need to switch tools for a more powerful search.
"When you want to narrow your focus even more you can then turn to Twitter's advanced search," Meek advises.
- Searching by location
There are two options: to use the Twitter advanced search form, or to learn the advanced operators. For example, you can simply type 'near:"Damascus" within:15mi' to find tweets sent within 15 miles of Damascus.
- Searching by time
The other beauty of advanced operators, is that you can also find and filter tweets that carry links. "Often the most important tweets are the ones that link to other documents, such as YouTube videos or eyewitness accounts on a blog," Meek said.
For example, one that Meek tried and tested during the 2011 uprising in Egypt, was to search for tweets that mentioned Tahrir and carried links. You can do this by using 'tahrir filter:links'
Other tricks are to search for tweets from an account. 'syria from:bbcnews' will show tweets sent by @BBCNews mentioning 'Syria'.
If you are dealing with an area where 3G and internet services have been suspended, you may want to search for tweets sent by SMS. For example, 'tahrir source:txt' will give tweets sent by SMS mentioning 'Tahrir'.
6. Set up RSS feeds around keywords or sources
Other ways to track keywords shared on social media is to use RSS feeds, adding them to your Google Reader account or another RSS feed reader. This is something Browne and colleagues do at Storyful and something Meek advises.
Meek suggests using social search engine Topsy to set up the RSS feeds. For example, you can search for mentions of 'Brighton' and subscribe to an RSS feed of these results (see the panel on the right of the Topsy screen).
You can also set up RSS feeds manually. Use the following as a guide:
- Keyword: To set up an RSS feed for any tweet that includes 'Brighton' = http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=brighton
- Hashtag: To set up an RSS feed for any tweet that includes '#Brighton' = http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=%23brighton
- From a user: Find tweets from @journalismnews: http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=from%3Ajournalismnews
- To a user: Find tweets to @journalismnews: http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=to%3Ajournalismnews
- Mentioning a user: Find tweets referencing a user: http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=%40journalismnews
Meek also shared his tip on how to best-search Facebook. He said that using Google's advanced operators to carry out a Facebook search will yield more results than a search within Facebook. He used the example of the Gairloch canoe tragedy, which happened in August.
For example, putting 'site:Facebook.com "gairloch canoe accident" OR "gairloch canoe tragedy"' into Google will find public Facebook posts that mention the event, such as pages of condolence.
Similar Google searches can be carried out for Foursquare 'site:foursquare.com', LinkedIn 'site:linkedin.com', Reddit 'site:reddit.com' and Twitter 'site:twitter.com'.
Additional advice on finding, nurturing and verifying contacts and information
8. Use contacts to find contacts
After realising a story is breaking or developing, Browne and colleagues at Storyful then use the information to find others talking about the same subject. They start with a source and follow a chain.
"If you find someone good, see who they are talking to on their own feeds and then perhaps put them in a list as well and see how the conversation builds up. People who are good sources tend to also somehow attract other good sources and talk to each other and share information," Browne said. "So if you artificially set yourself inside the conversation and watch what happens, it gives you another degree of being able to see what's happening."
9. Nurture contacts
Just as you would keep in regular contact with key sources in the offline world, Wyllie says it is important to keep in regular contact and remain "loyal" to social media sources.
"We tend to interact and follow most of the sources that we want to keep. We try to interact with them so that if something does happen we are not going to be the faceless person asking for a line from them. We can say 'we've been following you for a while' and we try to be personal with them.We tend to interact and follow most of the sources that we want to keepDavid Wyllie
"As soon as you reach out to them or ask them for information or you reach out to them and you are not following them or you've just followed them, it's not a great way for them to trust that you're emotionally invested in what their doing."
10. Consider private v public lists
Asked if all Breaking News lists are public, Wyllie explained the team keep some developing lists private. "Given the amount of followers the @BreakingNews account has, it's conspicuous when we either follow someone or add them to a list.
"Yesterday [Thursday, 13 September] we followed the Yemen Times and people on Twitter were saying, 'oh, you are following the Yemen Times now' because everything is conducted in public."
He added that Breaking News keeps "a couple of private lists just so that we don't draw attention into what we are looking in to". He said otherwise "the act of observing the news on our part", could change how someone covers it.
11. Keep your lists
Reporters would not throw away a contacts book, and in the same way journalists using social media for newsgathering should never delete a list and always keep them up-to-date, advises Wyllie.
"Never throw away a source," he urges. "With turmoil surrounding the US embassies and consulates at the moment, there are people now looking for sources in Yemen and Libya and Egypt who perhaps would have had a great network of sources a year ago during the Arab Spring who thought well, [that part of the] Arab Spring is over, I don't need those sources any more.
"This shows that you do need those sources and that you should keep them because now people are looking well into the story, what they can find and all they are doing is retracing the work that they did a year or two ago."
12. Question the information shared by your sources
Wyllie explained that there can be a "danger in depending too much on one interpretation of the facts".
"The great temptation with citizen journalists is to follow them because they are giving you what is the most exciting picture of what is happening – but it might not be necessarily the most accurate representation of what is happening."
He gave an example of how reports of the protests outside the US embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, on Thursday 13 September became skewed. "From most people it seemed incredibly dramatic but the reverse was true, that people on the ground were actually saying 'storming' is not necessarily the right word to use, that the situation was under control and people were not being shot down in front of the embassy."
"The temptation is to look for the most exciting lines, but really what you have to do is look for the most accurate, and over time try to remember which people have provided those accounts," Wyllie said.
13. Verify your sources
Browne said that validating the information you find is critical. "It's really important to look at the sources that are providing information, examine their digital footprint, see where they have been, who they interact with."
He also said that checking photographs and videos is key, such as "topographical details, be it buildings, shadows, sun, time of day, weather, and cross referencing that with a host of information providers out there, such as satellite imagery on Google Maps, Google Earth.It's really important to look at the sources that are providing information, examine their digital footprint, see where they have been, who they interact withMalachy Browne
Browne also advises using tools such as Google Reverse Image Search and TinEye Reverse Image Search to compare historical photographs.
"So for today [Thursday 13 September], for instance, there was an attack on the US embassy in Sana'a [Yemen] and an image was quickly sent out and was circulating on Twitter and Facebook of an attack on that embassy. But it was an attack that happened in 2008 and within a minute we had debunked that as being an old photograph by using technology like this."
For more on verification see our guide on how to verify content from social media.
14. Pick up the phone
Wyllie gave a great example of why basic journalism skills are still at the heart of this type of research.
Wyllie had turned up to work one Friday morning at around 7am and saw tweets on his personal feeds saying gun shots had been fired at a mall complex just outside of Denver, Colorado.
"At that point there was very little information but a lot of sensational things being tweeted.
"Local news sites were on it but didn't have a great deal of information. At that point I had used a few keywords to try and figure out who was there and who was tweeting pictures and who was tweeting information about what was happening."
Wyllie was building up a picture of people in the area. He could see photos with 30 or 40 police cars outside of a cinema so realised it was no minor incident.
"At that point I became incredibly frustrated at the lack of details so I decided to narrow the distance between me and the story," he said, searching for the number for the Aurora police department.
Because it was night time in the US, there were no press officers on duty or public information officers.
Wyllie spoke to a dispatcher who gave him everything he needed to know.
"Because it was so early it hadn't occurred to them that they didn't want to tell the press. There is this great culture, especially in the lower levels of American police forces and state and county level, that they will tell you what's happening because there's really no reason for them not to tell you, which is a great and noble way of how to see things and not often how it's viewed in the UK."
Wyllie asked the dispatcher how many people had been shot, whether it was perhaps three or four. They told him that it was between 20 and 30 and probably a lot more.
"At that point you realise that this is a huge story that transcends social media. You have to be more on top of the details than just looking for witness reports through Twitter."
He added that "you go back to your journalistic training" and need to stand back and say "'I have to be really careful, this is a huge story, I have to be right and I can see there are things that I can do to verify the facts and figures so I should be doing them, I shouldn't just be sitting in my chair looking at Twitter'."
Wyllie added: "If you can make a call and verify facts you should. And in 99 per cent of situations you can make at least one call."
- To learn how to carry out advanced research, attend our one-day course led by Colin Meek.
- For more on search and verification, follow the Storyful blog.
- This Journalism.co.uk podcast also features tips and tools for finding sources and stories via social media from Wyllie and Browne, as well as Paul Quigley, chief executive and co-founder of NewsWhip and Mohamed Nanabhay, co-founder of SignalNoi.se.
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