Case Study 2.1: Using Social Media as a Police Scanner
The medium by which we’re gathering information may change, but the principles of verification always apply. Challenging what you see and hear, seeking out and verifying the source, and talking to official and primary sources remain the best methods for accurate reporting.
At Circa, we track breaking news from all over the world — but we publish only what we can confirm. That requires that we use social media to monitor breaking news as it happens so we can apply verification.
Remember that the information on social media should be treated the same as any other source: with extreme skepticism.
For the most part, I view the information the same way I would something I heard over a police scanner. I take in a lot and I put back out very little. I use the information as a lead to follow in a more traditional way. I make phone calls, send emails and contact primary sources who can confirm what I’m hearing and seeing (or not).
In the case of the 2013 shooting at the Los Angeles airport, for example, we observed reports from the airport coming from eyewitnesses and contacted LAPD, the LA FBI field office and the LA county coroner. If we couldn’t independently verify what we saw and heard, we held it until we could.
Even in cases where major news organizations were reporting information, we held back until we could confirm with primary sources. Often these organizations cite unnamed law enforcement sources, and as we’ve seen with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Navy Yard shooting, the Newtown shooting and other situations, anonymous law enforcement sourcing is often unreliable.
Using TweetDeck to monitor updates
If social media is a police scanner, TweetDeck is your radio. There are a few ways you can create a dashboard for yourself to monitor the flow of updates.
I build Twitter lists ahead of time for specific uses. My list topics include law enforcement for major cities, reliable local reporters and news organizations for major cities, and specialized reporters. I can plug these lists into columns on TweetDeck and run searches against them, or simply leave them up as a monitoring feed.
Small plane lands in the Bronx
Here’s how I used searches on TweetDeck during the January 2014 emergency landing of a small plane on a Bronx expressway to unearth breaking news reports and to triangulate and verify what I saw.
I noticed several tweets appear in my main timeline mentioning a plane landing on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx section of New York, which is not a normal occurrence.
Bronx *Plane Down* Major Deegan Expy. E-81 confirming a small plane down, no fire, appears to be an emergency landing.— NYC Fire Wire (@NYCFireWire) January 4, 2014
The plane landed around 3:30 p.m. local time in New York. (The tweet is dated in Pacific Standard Time.) This was one of the first tweets to report the landing. I follow a couple of NYC area accounts like, which act as a sort of police scanner for what’s going on in the area. I won’t report it until I can back it up, but it’s useful to have as a potential alert to dig deeper.
After seeing the initial reports, I proceeded to run a search on TweetDeck using its ability to show tweets that only have images or video. I used the search terms “small plane” and “Bronx.”
The above results showed that credible local news sources were reporting the plane landing, and they had images. I also found additional information and images from a wider search of all tweets that used a location filter (within 5 miles of New York City) and the keywords “small plane” and “bronx”:
I also searched within my specialized list of verified accounts belonging to New York State and City agencies, and used the location filter again. These credible sources (below) helped confirm the event.
At this point I contacted the public information office for the FDNY to confirm what I saw and ask for any other details they might have. I was told there were three people on board, two passengers and a pilot. We were later told the make/model of the plane, the name of the person the plane was registered to, and the hospital the pilot and passengers were taken to. Social media led us to the event — but we had to track the details down the old-fashioned way.
Feeling we had properly run down enough credible information to get started, we filed our story (see below). The Circa app offers readers an option to “follow” a story and receive push updates as more information is added. Our process is to get a story up as soon as possible with verified reports and continue to push out updates. TweetDeck allows us to get a jump on a developing story and seek out reliable people (law enforcement, primary sources) we can contact to confirm the validity of social media updates. In some cases we contact the person who sent the information to Twitter and try to determine if they’re reliable.
Building a body of evidence
The information you’re seeing on social media should be the first step toward trying to verify what actually occurred, rather than the final word.
The key is to observe as much as you can, take in information and compare it to other content and information to build up a body of evidence. Find ways to corroborate what you find by directly contacting and verifying the people who are connected to the content you find.
As I said, treat social media as a police scanner.