Egypt curation on Twitter shows opportunities, challenges for journalists

During the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Twitter has become a major source for news from the region.

One of the most noted Tweeters on the topic is Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR (see stories on the Nieman Lab and the New York Times, for example). From six in the morning to 11 at night, he collects, shares and follows tweets about the region, often from eyewitnesses. With this flood of information, how does he filter what to pass on and where to research further?

In an interview with PBS Newshour (above), Carvin explained that he knew bloggers in Tunisia and Egypt before the protests, and thus was able to follow the narrative from the beginning. He “pulled together a list of people I knew … a base of maybe half a dozen people that I had known and followed for a number of years so I knew they were reliable,” he told the Newshour’s Hari Sreenivasan.

Building a network

Having an existing network is also helpful if you’re not covering an event halfway around the globe. Washington, D.C., news site TBD was able to stand out in its coverage of a hostage taking at a TV channel partly because some eyewitnesses were partners in the site’s blog network. TBD had embraced the social media space and used it effectively during this breaking news situation.

For Carvin, he says he can gain a lot of important context from Twitter users’ links to each other.

“If you pay attention to the network, who’s following whom, how long a person has been on Twitter, how often they’re being retweeted … it gives you a mental map of the core people,” he said.

While not immediately reliable, Carvin says at least you know who is talking to whom. (The network of people sending messages about and from Egypt through the social media site is large, as this visualization shows.)

Whom to trust?

A downside of the instant spread of information on Twitter is that rumors, too, can take hold. Multiple re-tweets sometimes blur the initial source, or users may pass on what they heard from someone else in an attempt to communicate with others on the ground while the information isn’t verified.

Craig Kannally, founder of Breaking Tweets and now a senior editor at the Huffington Post, compiled a checklist that hasn’t lost any of its timeliness. In the spirit of the airline industry, here are some things Kannally uses to help determine whether a tweet is reliable.

  • Context: Check the user’s feed for related tweets. “You’d be surprised how often someone posts a follow-up tweet later or precedes the ‘breaking tweet’ with other pertinent info,” Kannally writes.
  • User history: Is this someone’s first tweet? Do they interact with other users?
  • More context: What are other people saying about the same incident this user describes? Does it match up?
  • Direct contact: Send an @-reply or a direct message, build a relationship with the user. Carvin also says he sends private messages to users to find out who they rely on for their information.
egypt jan25

"January 25 - I was there" stickers in Cairo, photographed by Lauren Bohn, who has been tweeting from Egypt from @LaurenBohn.

Mandy Jenkin, TBD’s social media editor, adds further important points to consider before tweeting or re-tweeting information, for example whether the tweet can stand on its own or needs additional information.

A different approach to newsgathering

Something to consider: Jenkins assumes you’re tweeting from a news organization’s account, spreading information under the organization’s banner. Carvin, however, has done most of his noted curation from his own Twitter stream, rather than NPR’s, which a commentar on Nieman Lab noted as well.

Writing under his own name may have freed Carvin to handle information differently than if he were writing under NPR’s banner. By this, I don’t mean that an individual journalist should be any less diligent in the information he or she curates. Rather, I think it’s easier to convey the flow of information, with all its uncertainties, when writing as an individual rather than a news organization. Carvin has communicated that clearly to his followers.

“I see my twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he told the NewsHour.

That includes asking followers for more context or translations, and adding comments like “source?” or “verified?” to his tweets.

Letting the audience share in this search for information makes Carvin’s twitter feed transparent, context-oriented and very fast – a real time “news wire about Egypt,” as the New York Times wrote, with information from sources on the ground. By noting his questions, he has embraced transparency and built credibility. In more ways than one, this is an example to follow.

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