Media140: Twitter and covering the US elections

Suw and I both spoke at the Media140 last Wednesday. Suw spoke about how Twitter helped build support for Ada Lovelace Day, the international day of blogging to raise awareness about women in science and technology. I talked about how I used Twitter as a reporting and community-building tool during my trip across the US covering the historic 2008 elections.

As I’ve written before, this was my third trip across the US covering the election and every trip included some experimental element. : In 2000, we focused on webcasting; in 2004, I wrote a blog; and in 2008, I built on blogging with an experiment in highly distributed networked journalism and geo-tagging. I experimented with several different services even after I landed in the US: Video services like Viddler and YouTube, geo-location services such as Fire Eagle and location-based social network BrightKite. In the end, I settled on four which became the cornerstones of my coverage: Flickr, Facebook, Delicious and Twitter.

Building contacts

Twitter often helped me develop better contacts who I initially met using other services. For instance, I posted my images to Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution-non-commercial use licence, which I felt was important because I was using Creative Common licenced photos from Flickr to help illustrate my posts. I contacted fellow Flickr users to let them know I had used their pictures, something I try to do as a matter of courtesy and also as a light-weight way to promote our journalism. Sometimes those contacts developed into stories and contacts beyond the original posts. For example, I used this excellent photo of a foreclosed home in California by Jeff Turner, who organises property shows there. He followed me on Twitter and helped me find local contacts for my reporting on the housing crisis.


Sign Of The Times – Foreclosure, by Jeff Turner, Some Rights Reserved

After writing a post about the crisis, I received an e-mail from Ralph Torres whose father had been in the property business for 30 years. Ralph wanted to give me a tour of his neighbourhood, Riverside, one of the hardest hit not only in California, but in the nation. He told me about the history of his neighbourhood and showed me the foreclosed homes on his street. He told me:

Our family went through a few recessions over the years, but it was always real estate sales slowing down. You didn’t have block after block with three or four houses vacant due to foreclosures.

That story made both an excellent article, and I recorded the tour for one of our election podcasts.

Virtual contacts and face-to-face connection

Twitter helped me organise my first of four blogger meet-ups on the trip. A Twitter contact helped not only arrange the guests but also a venue in LA. Having someone local who knew which venue to use was invaluable – it’s on-the-ground knowledge that is hard for a visitor to find.

Connecting and collaborating with fellow journalists

Twitter also connected me to other journalists. One of the stories I read was how the recession was increasing homelessness and creating tent cities, reminiscent of Hoovervilles during the Great Depression. Blogging and Twittering journalist Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told me about a tent city in Seattle. I doubt I would have learnt of that without her help, and she pointed me to details on the Seattle P-I site, saving me valuable time.

Real-time reporting and aggregation

Twitter proved invaluable throughout the trip, allowing me to stay in touch with friends, other journalists and those following the elections. It acted as a real-time reporting tool and, by using Twitpic, it allowed me to tell the story not just in words but also in pictures. It also was a real-time news feed with news organisations and people flagging up must-read stories and must-watch vidoes in the lead up to the election. One of my friends and followers, Adam Tinworth, said during the trip that he hoped I would get up soon because he needed his election news fix. He told me at media140 that my Twitter feed was the most efficient way to follow the elections.

The night of the election, I had planned to go back to my hotel and finish some writing, but I was caught up in the street celebrations in the city I had called home for seven years. On Twitter, I read reports of how 16th Street, the historic black district of the city, was clogged with revelers. I was downtown near McPherson Square and, early in the morning, people of all races were celebrating Barack Obama’s historic victory. Washington can be a very racially divided city, and I had never seen anything like this.
Celebrations in Washington DC after Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency, by Kevin Anderson, Some Rights Reserved.

But everyone told me that the real party was at the White House. I didn’t have to wait until I got back to my hotel to report. I could report live from the streets, providing pictures (albeit grainy) and quoting the crowds as they chanted outside of the White House: “Whose house? Whose house? Obama’s house! Obama’s house!”

At the end the trip on election night, I heard from Ralph in California. He said on Twitter:

Big thanks to @GuardianUS08 for last month’s visit and chat and for pulling me further into the conversation.

That was the goal and a measure of the success of what I had hoped to achieve with my experiment in highly distributed, networked journalism. Despite the pressures of almost constant reporting over two months and the difficulties of driving across the US, more than 4000 miles in three weeks, Twitter proved incredibly useful as a reporting tool, an aggregation tool and as a tool to take part in a real-time conversation about the election.

The trip also proved the effectiveness of networked journalism. I really don’t think I could have achieved a fraction of what I did without Twitter. It is actually part of a larger trend of how mobile phone technology will open up new opportunities for professional journalists just as it has spawned the citizen journalism movement. Camera phones were just he beginning.

As I said at media140, there are still some work to be done to fully realise the promise of these technologies. In working on Twitter and other platforms, tying together all of the content and providing context was only possible through manual, editorial methods: writing posts on the Guardian and weaving a narrative through the tweets, Facebook questions and Flickr messages. That was an imperfect solution. I had to try to reconstruct Twitter conversations and Facebook threads and tie them together. It was easier with Twitter, seeing as most of the updates were public, but Facebook proved more complicated and less satisfying. But we have done a lot of work at the Guardian this spring to help integrate Twitter into the site, such as we did during the G20 protests when we used ScribbleLive to pull together the updates of several of our journalists.

As I have said in the past, I have been frustrated as a field journalist with having to leave the story to report, but Twitter allowed me to stay in the middle of the story while I was reporting. It also provided me with a real-time conversation with people while I was covering the story, something that seemed a dream four years earlier when I covered the elections in 2004. We’re still only scratching the surface of what is possible, and while it’s a challenging time to be a journalist, I still can’t help think we’re living through a revolutionary time for journalism.

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