Live-Tweeting the News: The Risks and Rewards

    by Ian Lamont
    July 18, 2016
    Photo by Raffi Asdourian on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
    Click the image for more in this series.

    Click the image for more in this series.

    On the night of July 7, reports surfaced from a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas that shots had been fired. On the streets of the city, it was a chaotic scene as a lone gunman targeted police for murder and protestors attempted to escape the violence. Outside of Dallas, people tried to understand what was going on. Some turned to television news to get updates, but millions more turned to digital sources, including Twitter.

    Twitter was a way for audiences to access raw scenes from the protest and the law enforcement response to the shooting, as well as unconfirmed reports and hearsay. Witnesses shared their stories on Twitter, while audiences all over the world added their observations and prayers. However, as the night drew on, many people gravitated to one of the most reliable local sources of information: The official Twitter account of the Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews), whose reporters and affiliates live-tweeted the crisis as it unfolded. The @dallasnews feed broadcast a stream of updates, reports from its journalists on the ground, and photos and video from the scene:


    Dallas Morning News coverage of BLM protest and shootings

    Twitter was an invaluable tool for the Dallas Morning News that night. It was a way for the 130-year-old newspaper to leverage its considerable editorial resources to report on a live, breaking news story. While TV news typically owns breaking news events, live-tweeting enabled the Dallas Morning News to cover the story in ways that the TV news crews could not. Twitter also provided a critical alternative when the Dallas Morning News website was brought down by a tidal wave of visitors.

    >>>>> Related: DigitalEd Training: How to Live-Tweet Events. Learn more here. <<<<<<


    The Wide Range of Live-Tweeting

    The coverage of the Dallas shootings was not the first instance of a news organization live-tweeting an event. Journalists have used Twitter to live-tweet breaking news since the social network first made its debut 10 years ago. Moreover, Twitter can be used to live-tweet all kinds of events, including:

    • Local news
    • Weather events and natural disasters
    • Community events
    • Rallies and elections
    • Sports
    • Entertainment news
    • Product releases
    • Conferences and seminars

    I see all kinds of news organizations live-tweeting events. The 2016 Elections have been a boon for live-tweeting political events, with solo journalists, commentators, and news organizations providing play-by-play coverage of debates and speeches. In recent months, I have also seen live-tweets from media teams reporting on Apple product announcements and an unmanned rocket landing on a barge. At the other end of the spectrum, the sports reporter at my local newspaper sometimes live-tweets local Little League games:

    Newton Tab little league update

    My first live-tweeting experience took place at a technology conference. At previous conferences I had used blogs to report on the speakers and exhibits, but for this conference I used my personal Twitter account (@ilamont) to shoot out interesting facts, quotes, and observations. It was liberating.  Instead of trying to compose a 400-word blog post on a single topic, which might take an hour or two to write and edit, I was able to push out dozens of tweets for each speaker as it was happening. I added the official conference hashtag to each tweet, which made it easier for other participants and fans to find and share. The conference MC even sought me out during one of the breaks to chat.

    While I no longer work as a tech journalist, I still live-tweet at events that I attend. It’s an invaluable tool for sharing information, connecting with other people, and offering my observations about the media industry and other topics that interest me. While giving a presentation in May about my Lean Media book project, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that some attendees were live-tweeting the event, sharing information from my presentation with followers who otherwise would not know about my ideas:

    The Risks

    However, there are risks to live-tweeting. The immediacy and brevity of Twitter means that quotes, observations, and video are posted with limited context and fact-checking. It’s easy to use Twitter to inform audiences, but false, inaccurate, or exaggerated information can make it into the feed and be spread to a global audience. For instance, during the Dallas shootings, the DMN Twitter feed shared the photo of a suspected shooter who turned out to be an innocent man.

    Dallas Morning News person of interest

    Complex or nuanced stories may not be so suited to live-tweeting. It would be difficult to live-tweet events such as the release of an economics report, the results of a ground-breaking medical study, or the official announcement of a 30-page federal indictment. Such topics are not only difficult to parse, they are also not particularly photogenic. In such a scenario, it may be tempting to stick to the highlights, but where live-tweeting excels is in the sharing of information, reactions, imagery, and details that cannot be found anywhere else.

    Best practices for live-tweeting an event

    Live-tweeting an event can be done alone, or in concert. For teams, coordination will be necessary to make sure that each person has his or her own area of responsibility. Some teams use shared Twitter accounts, but in recent years I have seen organizations shifting to a model that uses a master account for major updates and retweets of reporters and official sources broadcasting interesting information, interviews, and other media. This is how the Dallas Morning News operated on July 7 and 8. As the crisis began to unfold,[email protected] shared the handles of its reporters on the scene:

    Dallas Morning News twitter accounts

    Should live-tweeting include retweets from non-official sources? People on the street may witness something that is important to understanding a story. But it may lack context or details, or it may come from an account whose ownership is difficult to verify. If images or video is involved, there may also be questions of copyright. It’s up to journalists and news organizations to make policies or on-the-spot decisions about how to handle tricky situations.   

    Technology tools for live-tweeting

    Live-tweeting an event does not require a particularly heavy-duty tech setup:

    • Laptop with Wi-Fi connection
    • Phone with carrier or Wi-Fi connection
    • Twitter app or client software such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck
    • Specialized apps for editing or sharing video
    • Charging cables

    Having a good network connection is critical. If no Wi-Fi signal is available, or it is overloaded, I sometimes use my phone’s personal hotspot feature to provide a Wi-Fi connection for my laptop.

    I generally use the Twitter Web client on my laptop and the Twitter app on my phone. However, client applications such as Hootsuite and Tweetdeck are good for monitoring certain topics either as a saved keyword search or hashtag.

    One of the most important pieces of software for live-tweeting is a basic text editor such as Notepad for Windows, TextEdit for Macs. If I have advance notice of the event, I will create a simple list of relevant hashtags and Twitter accounts which can be copied and pasted into new tweets.

    If you intend to use video, either shoot in short clips or have assign someone to edit or extract short clips that are optimized for Twitter. Twitter has a size limit for videos, as well as a length limit (currently 2 minutes and 20 seconds). Uploading a long video will take a long time and will require a good network connection.

    It is possible to live-tweet video using Periscope (an app that Twitter owns) but be aware of the following limitations:

    • Not everyone in your audience will have the Periscope app installed.
    • Maintaining a live video feed makes it difficult to tweet text/photo updates at the same time.
    • Periscope requires a strong network connection, whereas text tweets can work over a lower-bandwidth connection.
    • Periscope and video editing apps use a lot of battery power.

    Twitter and other services offer widgets that can be added to website home pages. If you know that you are going to be live-tweeting an event, or breaking news turns into a live-tweeting opportunity, be sure to notify your existing audiences via the website, newsletter, and other social media. You can refer them to the Twitter feed, or to a web page with the widget installed.

    If done correctly, live-tweeting an event can deliver huge value for audiences while helping media organizations cover breaking news, community issues, and other important events. It’s not hard to get started, and if done well, live-tweeting can help your organization stand out compared to the competition.

    >>>>> Related: DigitalEd Training: How to Live-Tweet Events. Learn more here. <<<<<<

    Ian Lamont is the founder of i30 Media, which publishes In 30 Minutes guides. He is also writing a book about Lean Media. Follow him on Twitter via @ilamont

    Tagged: breaking news innovative political coverage lean live sports periscope twitter

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