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Jan. 25, 2012, 1:30 p.m.

Gina Chen: Breaking-news situations require a breaking-news approach

The best way to figure out what information readers need from you when you are covering an emergency is to imagine yourself in their position.

I have new duty to add to journalists’ jobs: Imagine how readers will use the information news organizations disseminate.

In the past, it was enough to gather the information, accurately explain it, and make some sort of sense of the news for readers. Now journalists need to imagine what it’s like to be the consumer of that information — and to use that knowledge to better craft the messages, regardless of what medium or format (text, video, photo, audio, social media) they employ.

Let me give an example to illustrate my point. My family and I were driving back north from a New Year’s trip to New Orleans. We were about halfway through the 20-hour drive, when we hit the snow-and-ice covered roadways of Interstate 81 in southern Virginia. We were going along at a decent clip when suddenly traffic stopped. We tried to find a AM radio station to figure out the cause of the delay — and how long it might last — but we couldn’t find one for that area.

So we turned to Twitter. As my husband drove, I typed I-81 into the search field and instantly found tweets about the delay and — even better — descriptions of what the road was like miles ahead of where we were. These were real-time observations from motorists — hopefully from passengers, not from drivers tweeting behind the wheel. I continued to monitor Twitter throughout that harried night, which included multiple stoppages on I-81, including one caused by a massive pileup that came after we passed through that stretch of roadway.

A few aspects of this example are notable for journalists.

  • We were relying on tweets mainly from “regular folks,” not journalists. A few television and radio stations were tweeting, and a highway-safety Twitter account was quite helpful. But a newspaper was noticeably absent from Twitter until the next morning, when a traditional news story was posted. The news story was helpful to fill in the blanks of the night, but as a news consumer what I really need was information in the moment. What was most helpful were the tweets from local motorists who offered suggestions for alternate routes to bypass I-81 for a stretch, or tweets that explained at what milepost marker traffic was flowing again. That way, we would know when an end to the waiting was in sight (or not.)
  • The most frustrating part was not knowing the local geography. People would tweet that I-81 was bad in a particular town. But, not being from the area, I didn’t know if that town was in Virginia (where we were) or another state where snow was falling along I-81 — or if it was ahead of us or behind us. In some cases, it was an easy problem to solve: I switched to the maps app on my phone and searched for the town. But sometimes this was futile (towns too small to show up on the map, tweets contained local nicknames instead of town names) — and it was always an extra step. I could sometimes figure out where people were tweeting from based on their Twitter accounts — but honestly, that was too much work. I needed information fast, with as little effort as possible, to figure out whether a tweet about “bad roads” on I-81 would pertain to the part were were going to be hitting soon.

For journalists, this example offers two lessons:

  • Pause a moment from writing your story and let your readers know what the heck is going on now. The massive pile-up was certainly a major news event for this community, and it sure deserved a traditional story in print and online. But communicating the story in the moment is the most important part of your job in the middle of a breaking news situation. I was thankful for the non-journalist tweeters — but I would have loved more official information in tweets from more news organizations.
  • As they say in real estate, the key issue is location, location, location. Whether you are tweeting about a massive pileup, slick roads, or just a road stoppage caused by construction, include location information. I know traditional AP style rules dictate that the state name should not be used when writing about the community where the news organization is located, under the theory that people already know where they live. But this rule should not apply to social media or online news, where people from outside your community may be using your information. Having a “VA” somewhere in the tweets I was reading about I-81 would have simplified my efforts to figure out which tweets applied to the stretch of road we were driving on and which did not.

For journalists, the best way to figure out what information readers need from you when you are covering an emergency is to imagine yourself in their position. In my example, imagine yourself craning over your smartphone trying to find out what’s going on, as your tense spouse tries to keep the car on an icy road and your two children sleep in the backseat, blissfully unaware of any trouble. What information would you want and how would you want it in that situation? Then give that to your readers.

POSTED     Jan. 25, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
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