What Twitter did for crisis journalism today

For a long time, peo­ple have been talk­ing about the poten­tial of Twitter as a news source. Today, Twitter earned its stripes.

An image of the destruction in Bozeman from someone with a camera phone not long after it happened.
An image of the destruc­tion in Bozeman from some­one with a cam­era phone not long after it happened.

At 8:12 a.m. MDT, an explo­sion rat­tled down­town Bozeman, Mont., destroy­ing three whole build­ings and at least five busi­nesses. Shortly after the explo­sion, few peo­ple out­side of the imme­di­ate down­town area knew any­thing about the grow­ing crisis.

But Twitter knew. A hand­ful of peo­ple were already post­ing to Twitter, prob­a­bly from their phones, won­der­ing, in essence, “What the hell just hap­pened?” It was the begin­ning of what would become a flood of infor­ma­tion about the explo­sion, all posted in real time to Twitter, 140 char­ac­ters at a time.

I knew that some­thing had to be done to orga­nize things, and I knew that the best way to do that was to cre­ate a hash­tag. So I came up with #boz­ex­plod, and even­tu­ally other peo­ple started to use it. In fact, a lot of peo­ple started using it.

How many? I’m not sure, but at one point dur­ing the day #boz­ex­plod was the sec­ond most pop­u­lar trend­ing topic on Twitter. — As a side note, related Google searches for “boze­man daily chron­i­cle” (the local news­pa­per) and “boze­man explo­sion” were the num­ber one and two searches on Google for a few hours.

What got posted? Eyewitness reports, rumors, uncon­firmed facts about casu­al­ties, phone num­bers to call for help, phone num­bers to call to vol­un­teer to help, quotes from press con­fer­ences, links to pho­tos, links to news stories.

People were respond­ing to each other, answer­ing people’s ques­tions about what was going on. People were self-regulating each other too. Remember those uncon­firmed rumors about casu­al­ties and miss­ing vic­tims? They were squashed almost as soon as they were posted. Discussions were held through the non-public direct messages.

Citizens jour­nal­ists showed restraint, just like pro journos.

For a town where it’s rare for a news organization’s Web site to update more than once a day, the vol­ume of news about Bozeman that flowed through Twitter was like a dam break.

People kept shar­ing the search.twitter.com address for the hash­tag, which meant that peo­ple who weren’t even mem­bers of Twitter could fol­low the feed. And they did, accord­ing to all the reports I received. Very lit­tle work got done in the offices around Bozeman today: all eyes were glued to http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23bozexplod.

Yes, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, KBZK (CBS), New West-Bozeman and other local news out­lets got their sto­ries out, even­tu­ally. (I think the Associated Press had its first few para­graphs out around 10 a.m.)

But Twitter got there first.

The story is encap­su­lated by one blog post I found from a man who lives in Livingston, a two 25 miles east of Bozeman (and over a moun­tain pass). He wrote:

A few min­utes ago my cousin’s wife updated her Facebook sta­tus look­ing for updates on the explo­sion this morn­ing in Bozeman. They live in Livingston, MT. Their radio and TV sta­tions did not have anything.

I did like many oth­ers and went right to Twitter Search to get the update. Found a Livingston radio call-in show and am lis­ten­ing live now. It’s amaz­ing how once again the peo­ple are way ahead of the media. I hope that the cur­rent sta­tus of no injuries or fatal­i­ties stays that way.

A response to his post also tells the story of the day:

twit­ter was really the only place i could find with good info with the excep­tion of kmms.

Another mes­sage came (via Twitter) from a man in New Zealand who has a business-owner sis­ter in Bozeman:

@superjaberwocky Am in New Zealand. Sent my sis­ter (a Bozeman busi­ness owner) info from you. She loved get­ting news of 3:00 meet­ing from NZ.

This is the infor­ma­tion access that Twitter can pro­vide, and, if I may point out, only hand­ful of that infor­ma­tion came from peo­ple at the scene. Most of it, the major­ity of it, was gen­er­ated by peo­ple using the Web to its fullest and report­ing what­ever they could as soon as they could.

Will this sort of thing ever replace those jour­nal­ists who went into the blast zone this morn­ing, the ones who stood at the press con­fer­ences and asked ques­tions? No. Not at all. But Twitter did a job that tra­di­tional jour­nal­ism could not pos­si­bly do in a city of this size. It informed the peo­ple as quickly as events hap­pened and let peo­ple know what they needed to know right away.

A lot of peo­ple think of Twitter as lit­tle more than idle chat­ter in 140-character seg­ments. I think that the Twitterers of Bozeman proved that view wrong today. I just won­der if what we can learn from this that we can apply to nor­mal, non-crisis journalism.

I’m will­ing to enter­tain ideas and sug­ges­tions. You can find me on Twitter if you want. http://www.twitter.com/superjaberwocky

  • http://www.manifestbozeman.com Philip Downer

    A lot of the credit goes to you to be hon­est. By start­ing the hash­tag for #boz­ex­plod you helped keep peo­ple informed.

    We did our best to keep the pho­tos rolling in one place, and the user com­mu­nity came together to help iden­tify effected loca­tion on the Google Map.

    Here’s the link...
    http://manifestbozeman.com/blog/2009/03/05/boze...

  • dis­quiet

    I watched the “reportage” on twit­ter all day and into the evening — my first expo­sure to twit­ter in this man­ner. As a reader and non-participant, I might be a bit more objec­tive than those who spent the day tweet­ing and retweet­ing the same things over and over, w/out there really being much sub­stance. I don’t think any­thing that was on twit­ter was unavail­able thru other sources — radio, boze­man city web­site, etc. Calling twit­ter Journalism is a stretch — the only peo­ple terming it such are the users. And I’m not sure how peo­ple lis­ten­ing to the same press con­fer­ences as we all were and restat­ing it (140 char­ac­ters or less!!) were doing any­thing con­struc­tive.
    What’s equally notable (to the false label­ing as jour­nal­ism) is the fact that many of the users spent an inor­di­nate per­cent­age of their time implor­ing oth­ers to digg them, use their pho­tos please­please­please, and crow­ing about how high on the list #boz­ex­plod was — this is journalism?

  • http://twitter.com/johntreadway John

    I actu­ally live in Lexington, MA but my cousin and his fam­ily live in Livingston (re quoted post above). I would not nor­mally be the audi­ence for a story from Bozeman, but the Facebook plea alerted me to some­thing that affected my fam­ily — which made it highly rel­e­vant. Without Twitter I would have been totally in the dark. This is the true power of social media — allow­ing peo­ple to inter­act with rel­e­vant sto­ries no mat­ter where they are occur­ring in the world. If CNN was just watch­ing Twitter trends they would have had this story quickly.

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    Yes, that is jour­nal­ism. The break­ing news was brought to the pub­lic as it hap­pened, in real time. Yes, it repeated a lot of the news com­ing out of other sources, but those sources, them­selves, repeat each other. Think about how it sounds to sit and watch a break­ing news story unfold all day on CNN. I’ll bet the kind of chat­ter you get there — uncon­firmed reports, eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony, facts as they come in — would be very sim­i­lar to what you saw on Twitter yesterday.

    As a pro­fes­sional writer, blog­ger, media expert and cre­den­tialed (yes, cre­den­tialed) mem­ber of the Bozeman press corps, I’m impressed with the speed and qual­ity of the infor­ma­tion that came out of Twitter yesterday.

    I’m will­ing to be that for every per­son who found it bor­ing and unnec­es­sary, like your­self, there were prob­a­bly 20 or 50 peo­ple who found it to be a vital source of infor­ma­tion about an uncer­tain sit­u­a­tion. That is what jour­nal­ism and report­ing are all about.

    As for those peo­ple who used it to pro­mote their own inter­ests, I agree with you. That was in poor taste, but Twitter is an equal-opportunity sound­ing board, and the major­ity of those post­ing to #boz­ex­plod yes­ter­day were help­ful and honest.

    Thanks for reading!

  • dis­quiet

    I watched the “reportage” on twit­ter all day and into the evening — my first expo­sure to twit­ter in this man­ner. As a reader and non-participant, I might be a bit more objec­tive than those who spent the day tweet­ing and retweet­ing the same things over and over, w/out there really being much sub­stance. I don’t think any­thing that was on twit­ter was unavail­able thru other sources — radio, boze­man city web­site, etc. Calling twit­ter Journalism is a stretch — the only peo­ple terming it such are the users. And I’m not sure how peo­ple lis­ten­ing to the same press con­fer­ences as we all were and restat­ing it (140 char­ac­ters or less!!) were doing any­thing con­struc­tive.
    What’s equally notable (to the false label­ing as jour­nal­ism) is the fact that many of the users spent an inor­di­nate per­cent­age of their time implor­ing oth­ers to digg them, use their pho­tos please­please­please, and crow­ing about how high on the list #boz­ex­plod was — this is journalism?

  • http://twitter.com/johntreadway John

    I actu­ally live in Lexington, MA but my cousin and his fam­ily live in Livingston (re quoted post above). I would not nor­mally be the audi­ence for a story from Bozeman, but the Facebook plea alerted me to some­thing that affected my fam­ily — which made it highly rel­e­vant. Without Twitter I would have been totally in the dark. This is the true power of social media — allow­ing peo­ple to inter­act with rel­e­vant sto­ries no mat­ter where they are occur­ring in the world. If CNN was just watch­ing Twitter trends they would have had this story quickly.

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    Yes, that is jour­nal­ism. The break­ing news was brought to the pub­lic as it hap­pened, in real time. Yes, it repeated a lot of the news com­ing out of other sources, but those sources, them­selves, repeat each other. Think about how it sounds to sit and watch a break­ing news story unfold all day on CNN. I’ll bet the kind of chat­ter you get there — uncon­firmed reports, eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony, facts as they come in — would be very sim­i­lar to what you saw on Twitter yesterday.

    As a pro­fes­sional writer, blog­ger, media expert and cre­den­tialed (yes, cre­den­tialed) mem­ber of the Bozeman press corps, I’m impressed with the speed and qual­ity of the infor­ma­tion that came out of Twitter yesterday.

    I’m will­ing to bet that for every per­son who found it bor­ing and unnec­es­sary, like your­self, there were prob­a­bly 20 or 50 peo­ple who found it to be a vital source of infor­ma­tion about an uncer­tain sit­u­a­tion. That is what jour­nal­ism and report­ing are all about.

    As for those peo­ple who used it to pro­mote their own inter­ests, I agree with you. That was in poor taste, but Twitter is an equal-opportunity sound­ing board, and the major­ity of those post­ing to #boz­ex­plod yes­ter­day were help­ful and honest.

    Thanks for reading!