Freelance Journalist, columnist for The Huffington Post, student at the University of Westminster.
In the past 12 months, Twitter has been instrumental in breaking and fuelling some of the world’s biggest news stories. Often, Twitter users get to the crux of a news stories before the big news organisations do - and with the sheer number of users, it’s a massive network and is easily able to spread news fast.
On Friday the 28th of April, Michael Green walked into an office building in Tottenham Court Road and threatened to blow it up. Buildings were promptly evacuated; many workers in these buildings took to Twitter to spread news of the situation. Within minutes, #tcr and #tottenhamcourtrd became trending topics.
I was fortunate to be checking Twitter at that precise moment and decided to track the story via social media. Using Storify, I curated a selection of Facebook statuses, tweets, Instagram photos and YouTube videos in real-time chronological order to tell the story as it was unfolding.
The situation concluded within 4 hours of the story breaking, but I had produced over 4 pages of material in that short space of time. On average, online users spend around 3% of their time reading news websites, so it was unfeasible that most visitors to the Storify feed would read through the curation in its entirety.
After some deliberation, I produced a second Storify feed, telling the story using just tweets - all user-generated, no official accounts such as Sky News or the Met Police. I wanted to prove that the open journalism framework can generate just as an effective news story as a big news organisation.
The overall goal for this project was to examine the effect of social media on online news reporting and whether open journalism is likely to have an effect on the future of online news. I have written an article to accompany the two Storify feeds, which examines the use of Twitter in breaking news stories, the consequences and its future impact on online news.
Twitter has over 500 million registered users - 50% of those actively use the site regularly. On average, each user has 126 followers. After some speedy maths, it transpires a single tweet has a potential audience of 31.5 million people. In an ideal world. So, with that evidence in mind, it comes as no surprise that Twitter is becoming quite a force to be reckoned with when it comes to breaking major news stories.
Previously, Twitter has been responsible for contributing to the Arab Spring uprising, and breaking news of the deaths of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, but to name a few. On the 28th of April, Twitter came into its own when a man stormed a building in Tottenham Court Road and held it under siege. With workers evacuated out of surrounding buildings, they took to Twitter to report on the situation - what they knew, what they could see, and how they felt about it. Within minutes #tcr and #tottenhamcourtroad became trending topics; not just locally, but worldwide.
Twitter wasn’t just there. It was sat behind the police cordon in a front-row seat and a bucket of popcorn, watching the events unfold before the local and national press had even caught wind that anything was happening. The only exception to this was The Huffington Post - their building was in close proximity to the sieged building, and one of the first evacuated. They were the first official news company to break the story… but without access to their computers, they had to do it over Twitter.
Meanwhile, eyewitnesses were still updating the world via tweets, photos, and video of the situation as it developed. They were closer than any news reporter could hope to get. The flurry of information crossing the Internet was the ultimate media package, combining eyewitness interviews on YouTube, amateur photos from inside the cordon with tweets and Facebook statuses from eyewitnesses with a peppering of official factual reporting from the official news agencies when they’d caught up. Twitter users were weighing in with opinion. Instead of being a fact-heavy news story devoid of emotion, it had become a multi-dimensional story fueling discussion and interaction.
Whilst the use of social media in this way could be considered game-changing, it also has the potential to cause unnecessary panic and chaos because of the ‘chinese whispers’ nature of sharing. One minute the assailant had a bomb strapped to him, the next it was gas canisters, and later on he was setting fire to buildings. At the same time, although these ‘mis-firings’ of information can hinder the flow of news, it is a fascinating insight into the evolution of a news story as it unfolds and develops.
Despite this and an audience of 31.5 million, users still turn to the Press for official confirmation of events, suggesting that although Twitter may be able to break big news, it still doesn’t have the trusted status that news corporations such as the BBC and Sky possess. However, what it does have is the framework to really pioneer and develop ‘open journalism’, a practice which is currently being driven by The Guardian. Open journalism breaks down the walls between the media consumer and the news room. It encourages consumers to interact with and contribute to news via a variety of online and mobile platforms. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian has claimed that open journalism ‘is the only way forward’ in order for news journalism to have a future.
Twitter is a journalists best friend at the moment - but will it fast turn into their worst enemy?
I just discovered that you can export your Storify as a slideshow, which is incredibly handy when you have a long Storify, as my first Storify was.
It encourages the user to interact with the content more than they would with scrolling down a feed.
Burt Herman, Storify Co-Founder