When asked what she thought about tweeting scanner traffic and whether her newsroom should participate, Dana Coffield, city editor at the Post, was adamant. “No. We would never do that,” she said. “Scanner traffic is notoriously inaccurate. We were just really cautious about that.”
In the Post newsroom, as in many newsrooms, reporters do listen to the scanners, Coffield said, but they only use it as the starting point for a story that needs to be reported by someone on the ground. In an emergency situation like a wildfire, it’s even more important for them “to be the filter and the vetter,” she said, precisely because there were so many rumors and contradictory reports circulating. For instance, Coffield said, she saw a lot of confusion in online conversations about whether or not the University of Colorado should evacuate, but she knew from the authorities that the fire was not actually in danger of reaching the campus at all.
“There was a lot of panic, it was a really scary situation,” Coffield said. “Our job at the newspaper is to help people have enough information that they can be less scared, and make informed decisions that keep them from being in danger.”
Daniel Petty, who became the Post’s first social media editor in April, agreed with Coffield’s policy. He said that he saw Twitter as an incredibly valuable source of information, but only as a starting point for reporting. He added that no newspaper could possibly be as fast in putting out information as Twitter users are, but that that that isn’t a newspaper’s role. “Twitter is a raw stream of information,” he said. “Our job is then to be tapped into these networks, to use the power of the community and crowdsource that information, and then go check it out…. Our job is to put things in context.”
So Petty doesn’t, as a general rule, re-tweet anything unless it’s been confirmed, and he doesn’t recommend that Post reporters incorporate unconfirmed tweets into their articles, either in print or online. “We have so many followers and our audience is so wide, to put something out that’s potentially not accurate, would be really irresponsible,” he said.
Petty and Coffield both said, when pressed, that they might worry about potentially losing online audience if their reporting was not fast enough, but that the alternative was not worth the risk. They do want the Post to be the place where people go first for information, but they want it to be right.
“All we have is our credibility,” Coffield said. “If we put out inaccurate information, how do we un-ring the bell? There’s no correction file for a Twitter feed.”
Petty added that if they lost some audience because their reporting wasn’t as fast as Twitter, they may have gained some others, as he tweeted links to Post stories online throughout the week. (For further reading: Petty wrote an article for the Post about the use of social media during the fire, which can be found here, and he and Sandra Fish also debated this topic on Twitter – read their back-and-forth here.)
The Daily Camera, for its part, was even more short-staffed than the Post during the fire, and did not have anyone specifically reading every tweet, said editor Kevin Kaufman. But in a kind of compromise, the Camera did host a Twitter deck on its home page, an aggregator displaying a feed from the #boulderfire tag.
Kaufman, like Petty, said he thought that his paper’s limited participation in the Twitter conversation drove audience to his site. “I think Twitter users understand that they’re just getting little bursts of information, and if they want more, they’re going to have to go elsewhere,” Kaufman said. “So I think it increased our traffic if anything.” He added in a follow-up email that most of the tweets from residents in the #boulderfire stream that week during the fire were “headlines from and links to the work of journalists in the mainstream media, the Camera being among the most referenced.”