“Curating social media during Hurricane Sandy for the Guardian” - Katie Rogers at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 6 December 2012

At news:rewired the Guardian’s Katie Rogers was talking about how the US arm of the paper used social media to cover Hurricane Sandy as it landed on their New York doorstep.

Katie Rogers is social news editor at the Guardian’s US outpost, although sadly I never got a chance to work directly with her because she joined just about as I was leaving. She was part of a panel at news:rewired talking about “collecting social conversations”, and the recent experience of Hurricane Sandy formed the backbone of her examples.

Curating the bad stuff

I thought one of Katie’s points was an inspired reversal of the usual “you can’t trust what is on social media meme”. She explained that as well as using social media to verify and confirm news, the Guardian had also used it to curate the things that were untrue. She explained that traditionally reliable sources had ended up being unreliable because they were sharing “bad stuff”. The Guardian kept up a separate #fakesandy hashtag to collect and debunk fake images and stories. She also uttered the immortal line:

“In a breaking news situation, there is always a picture of a shark swimming somewhere.”

Katie thought this might be the start of a big new thing for social media. Collecting the fakes also generated conversations, brought traffic and earned the Guardian journalistic reputation. The more people adopt social media platforms, she said, the greater the risk that bad information will be shared. News organisations have a role to play in mitigating that.

Getting stories from comments

The comments underneath newspaper website articles are much derided, and I’ve had an on-off love/hate relationship with reading, contributing and designing the systems that power them for many, many years.

Katie spoke about how useful they had been in unearthing stories from readers that could then become a powerful thing in their own right. In particular she mentioned one man who had ended up spending $400 a night in a Manhattan hotel because he simply couldn’t get home. Not only had Hurricane Sandy stranded him, it was financially ruining him. She stressed that Ruth Spencer had found the story in an area of the site Katie feels that “sometimes journalists are actively told to disregard.”*

Twitter verification counts

Katie described how the Guardian was able to disprove a story doing the rounds that some electricians were trapped in a building. However, she described it as “scary” going against an established news organisation who had been reporting it, armed only with information from a Twitter account that looked like it belonged to the company meant to be involved, but which wasn’t verified. The value of Twitter’s verification here is interesting — trusting the little tick feels like out-sourcing some of your usual leg-work. It also means that your trust of a source can only be as good as Twitter’s own verification procedures, which, with them being a private company, are not transparent.

Clever search tactics

Katie talked about how she uses search terms like “my friend was shot” to trawl social network posts to find witnesses or the people affected by crime. A good command of how to search social media feels like a necessary journalistic skill these days, and I was reminded of Nicola Hughes and her heroic efforts to track down eyewitnesses to news stories armed with nothing much more than Tweetdeck and a very well thought out set of search tactics.

Next...

Also speaking in this session at news:rewired was Dave Wyllie from BreakingNews.com. I’ll have my notes on his talk up next

*This article was updated to make it clear that Ruth Spencer had found the story about the man in the hotel, not Katie, as I had erroneously put in my original notes.

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