How Twitter Broke The News

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‘If journalism is the first rough draft of history, eyewitness reports captured on mobile phones and broadcast to the world are the first notes — scratchings, written hastily on Post-its, which later became an outline that eventually inform the first draft as well as the drafts that follow. They are hastily scribbled and stuck in the moment, but later, when a skilled storyteller comes along, they begin to take shape into a cohesive narrative’, writes Jonathan D. Fitzgerald when discussing the 2013, Boston bombing’s and the role social media played in the events that followed.

In this blog, I want to briefly touch on some examples of how our endless access to global communication has changed the way news is produced and how we receive it. Discussing findings on the Boston bombings and London riots, I also asked around the office – and even on Twitter – to find out how people choose to receive the news.

Boston Bombings

During the Boston bombings, the @bostonpolice account became the go-to source for information to clarify, as much as possible, what was going on and what course civilians should follow in order to stay safe.

The Boston Police Department Twitter account originally had 54,000 followers, but it acquired over 330,000 after the crisis. In total, the account reached approximately 49 million people within 5 days.

Three vital tweets from the account during this tragic event track the progress the police department made:

They did an amazing job of maintaining their composure in their short communications to the people of Boston, and the world, in a time of complete pandemonium.

The ‘eyewitnesses becoming amateur reporters… the emotion-fueled speculation, the misinformation and the vigilante journalism’ are all symptomatic of the internet age. As Jonathan D. Fitzgerald goes on to say in his article, ‘the Internet made all of these things a reality, and while it’s impossible to try to assign a quantitative “good”or “bad” to these developments, what we can know for sure is that we will never go back. This is how big news is reported now.


The reactive response from Twitter users during, and following, the Boston bombings created a turning point in how police forces viewed their presence online. The Boston Police Department recognised that its Twitter profile would be the first place people would look for news. After all, the people of Boston were already sharing their own news and experiences on this platform.

More recently in London…

Images circulated on social media as events unfolded and the Met Police was quick to urge people to pass them directly onto the police force to aid investigations. Police social media accounts are no longer as unfamiliar as they might have been in 2013 when the Boston bombings took place. They are now on hand to share necessary information and detract from any false stories being shared to the masses. This development has also put them in the best position to gather information relating to their case without necessarily tracking individuals of interest down themselves.

Police accounts aren’t always so serious though. Our very own @GMPCityCentre was at the centre of this Buzzfeed article, 19 Tweets That Prove British Police Are The Best On Twitter thanks to tweets like this:

How do the people of Manchester get their breaking news?


When it comes to the ways we choose to see the news unfold, I asked around the room and the general response was that Twitter was people’s first port of call when discovering more about a breaking news event. In the scenario that the news broke on the TV in our office,, only one person told me they would continue watching and only a handful of others said they would head to a specific news outlet. Our technical director told me he would turn to Google to get the general idea of what had happened but then wait for the following day’s paper when the information was less nonsensical and had been collated into an informative and fact checked article.

Interesting, I thought, and so I decided to put the scenario to a poll on Twitter to see the response from some of our followers:

The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism


Written in 2009, this piece by Nic Newman is a study on the response from UK and US newspapers and broadcasters concerning the rising popularity of   participatory social media and the power of individual consumers.

The paper is 60 pages, discussing the reaction to the Mumbai attacks, Iranian elections, the 2009 Budget and many more and is a truly interesting read. It is especially interesting, perhaps, when you consider how tiny Twitter was in 2009 compared to now.

Mashable predicted the microblogging site would reach 18 million users by the end of 2009. This is a world away from the 313M monthly active users Twitter says it now boasts.

Afua Owusu talks about the influence of social media on her job as a supervising producer of WGN:

London Riots on Social Media

During the 2011 London riots, it was thought that social media played a role in incentivising the chaos. The most senior police office at the time, Tim Godwin (Command at Scotland Yard) contemplated seeking the authority to “switch it off”. However a report from the ‘Riots Communities and Victims Panel’, which was published after the riots,cited What is clear from the riots is that there is no simple ‘switch off’ solution. Viral silence may have as many dangers as viral noise.’ In the same article, The Guardian reports from one rioter that a group of Twitter users may have played a small, if inadvertent, role in spreading disturbances: mainstream journalists.

‘”I saw people, well on Twitter, following journalists’ reports,” he said. “So not even of their friends’ reports, they were following journalists’ reports to find out where to go.”’

Explaining that it was the journalists’ fast reporting that was aiding the uncontainable crowds, and not necessarily other rioters using the hashtag proved that social media guidelines are a must, especially perhaps for journalists reporting on breaking news.

You can view the guidelines from Reuters and BBC online, and below are some snippets of the rules their journalists must follow:



We can see the guidelines practiced here from @atriedeshouse who is careful in her approach when contacting a person at the scene of a disaster.

The concerning tweet belongs to @eddydeg

Beneath his tweet you can see an influx of journalists scrambling to get the rights to use the picture for their story. Now think, how often do you see a news story that doesn’t start with, or at least heavily feature, evidence in tweet form?

But why is Twitter the best place for breaking news?

Hashtags result in quick and impromptu communities all discussing one event, and are easy to follow. The latest and most relevant information is pushed to the top. Generally the most informative or uniquely opinionated posts gain high levels of engagement as a result of replies and retweets.

With tweets limited to 140 characters or less, this condensed nature means our demand for constant new content is met with a brief skim read of a handful of tweets.

Twitter moments now takes the idea of hashtags further by collating what Twitter believes to be the most relevant tweets to enable audiences to really discover a moment in time, as it happened.

Here is a view of Twitter’s Global News page it feeds to users on a daily basis.

Will the rise in “fake news” see a decline in users heading to Twitter first to verify a breaking news story? Or will Twittter moments continue to divide the fact from fiction and help Twitter remain as the go-to platform to fulfill their mission of: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

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This blog highlights that more and more people are using social media, and Twitter in particular, as a go-to news source. Both brands and individuals are using it as a communication channel, with the need to be both proactive and reactive on social media becoming ever more apparent. Find out more about OVG’s social media services.

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About Leah Bradburn

Leah just wishes that everyone could get along, like we used to in middle school. She wishes she could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.

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