Using social media tools to break news — Sona Patel


Twitter is the tool of choice for reporters covering breaking news, but getting it right requires coordination between social media staff, reporters and even other news organizations, said Sona Patel, staff editor for social media at the New York Times who spoke Wednesday at the 2014 KipCamp.

“Planning ahead is the most important thing to do,” Patel said, citing examples from her time at the Seattle Times, including a Seattle police murder and a live-blog of city council.

Lakewood police killer

The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer in 2009 for its coverage of murders of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers. Patel’s team provided comprehensive coverage using social media tools as reporter tweeted updates throughout the day. (To see the Time’s coverage,  including tweets by reporters, click here.)

The Times and other area news organizations agreed on a single hashtag — #washooting — creating an authoritative and up-to-the-minute source for updates.

“Seattle media is very tight,” she said. “We were able to communicate with local TV  stations, etc. that this is the hashtag we want to use.”

Advance planning is key to handling social media during breaking news.

“We have communicated with (reporters) well before breaking news events about what the expectations are,” Patel said.

She suggested having a very detailed plan in place, creating potential roles for reporters, dedicating an editor to each reporter, developing a plan for how to handle tweets or do live blogs.

Aurora movie theater shooting

The Denver Post used ScribbleLive to provide breaking news coverage of the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. To see coverage, click here. The tool, also used by the Boston Globe in their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, allows media organizations to curate unruly streams of tweets and other social posts.

“It’s really not about the quantity, but the quality,” Patel said.

“They are tweeting once every three or four minutes. All those updates are not going to be of interest to the reader.”

During breaking news situation, Patel scans social media, monitoring hashtags and key words.

“I’ll be in the newsroom, searching on FourSquare and Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “Having someone back at the command post is helpful. That’s very critical. When you’re out covering breaking news, you’re covering breaking news.”

Seattle May Day protests

The 2012 May Day protests were easier for Patel’s Seattle team to anticipate than the tragic shootings referenced in the presentation. In preparation, every reporter was armed with an iPad or smartphone for taking photos and instant sharing.

The reporters were able to send drafts to their editors using WordPress. This streamlined the process and allowed the Seattle Times to publish quickly.

Live blog from city council

Breaking news can be tackled in teams of two reporters, one to write the full story for print publication and another live-blogging and interacting with the audience online, Patel said.

The Seattle Times used this approach at a contentious city council meeting and the colorful quotes and photos from the on-scene reporters gave the coverage an edge over the televised version of the hearing.

“Readers commented in real time, asked questions during the meeting,” Patel said. To read a liveblog of a public hearing on a Seattle arena proposal, click here.

App toolbox

Patel shared a selection of apps to help reporters become fully-formed multimedia pros. Here’s the list:

  • Communication:
  •  5-0 Radio Police Scanner (iOS /Android). Listen to police scanner dispatches on the go.
  • Glympse (iOS /Android). A favorite of editors, occasionally maligned by reporters. This app allows users to temporarily share their location.
  • GroupMe (iOS/Android). A group text-messaging service. Useful for groups of reporters and photographers in the field.

Photo and video:

  • Camera+ (iOS). Photo-taking and editing all in one app.
  • YouTube (iOS / Android). The best video client for social sharing.
  • Instagram (iOS / Android). Large network, now embeddable on posts.