How journalists are using social media monitoring to support local news coverage

Photo by Walt Stoneburner

In July 2014, when a disgruntled employee shot his boss in a downtown Chicago high-rise, a TV crew at NBC 5 in Chicago showed up on the scene. Police had roped off the building, and employees were told to stay on their floor. Nobody knew exactly what was going on except that an armed intruder might still be inside.

Back at NBC 5’s offices, Katy Smyser, a producer in the investigative unit, was searching Twitter and Facebook, trying to find office workers inside the building. Using a location-based searching tool from the Chicago-based company Geofeedia, Smyser discovered photos of people hiding in closets. The station used the posts to identify potential sources inside the building, where the chief executive of Arrowstream had been shot on the 17th floor. He later died of his injuries.

“We use it fairly often, anytime there is breaking news, whenever there is bad weather,” Smyser said of Geofeedia. “That’s when it’s most powerful. We can use it to track in real time.”

As social media becomes embedded into the workflow of more and more reporters and “social listening” tools come into wider use, the shooting case is an example of how location-tracking platforms in particular can have value for local journalists—though the last few years have also revealed some of their limitations, namely how few social media posts are stamped with a location.

When Geofeedia came out of private beta in 2012, it was one of the first platforms to allow users to monitor social media posts based on location. News organizations have never been the company’s primary customer base—its clients include police departments and security companies, businesses like McDonald’s and Dell, and even The Mall of America—but from the start journalists saw potential uses for their reporting, and global outlets like CNN, BBC and The Associated Press signed up. Today, Geofeedia has plenty of competition, and it’s looking to expand its presence in the news industry, particularly targeting shrinking newsrooms with fewer reporters. The company was at the annual Online News Association conference last month in Los Angeles. “We’re a powerful platform to do more with less,” Phil Harris, the company’s chief executive, said in a recent interview.

That platform, like its competitors, doesn’t come cheap. In 2012, Harris told Poynter that the company’s preliminary pricing was $1,450 a month for five users; a 2013 story put annual access for small newsrooms at $3,000. He wouldn’t say how much Geofeedia charges today, but said the company is willing to work with news organizations, particularly smaller ones. “We struggled at the affiliate or smaller groups because we had somewhat rigid pricing,” Harris said. “We’re more open to adapting. That’s been working really well.”

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Still, for cash-strapped newsrooms, it’s not always an easy sell. “We just don’t have the budget to buy tools,” said Scott Kleinberg, social media editor at the Chicago Tribune. “Everything we do is free, so for real-time and breaking news we turn to lots of good old-fashioned hashtag monitoring and that kind of stuff. I always look forward to the day when someone comes to me with a budget.”

Another big challenge is how few social media posts contain that crucial “geotag.” The location tags are only searchable if a social media account is public and the geo-location settings are turned on. Even then, considerable human reporting is usually required to verify posts and to contact people off-line.

“For a while we were sometimes lulled into thinking we had gotten everything,” said NBC’s Smyser. “It’s not a be-all-end-all.”

The cost of commercial platforms like Geofeedia helps to explain enthusiasm for free alternatives. Facebook itself launched one of these this fall: Signal is a free platform, aimed at journalists, designed to make Facebook and Instagram content easier to search. Its features include an interactive global map for Instagram content. Journalists I’ve talked to who have used it are excited about the features—and the cost.

But the limited use of geotags also makes it harder for outside developers to build useful, inexpensive tools. Northwestern University’s Knight Lab hosts the project Neighborhood Buzz, which is designed to categorize Twitter messages from neighborhoods in select cities, including Chicago. But Joe Germuska, the lab’s director, wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the data it collects.

“We find that a very small percentage of tweets are geocoded at all, so it’s hard to generalize from the sample data, especially at the neighborhood level, where it would take quite a long time to get a sample large enough to make generalizations,” Germuska said. Out of curiosity, he set a test in motion on the day we connected. He ran a tweet collector for 90 minutes; of more than 200,000 tweets, fewer than 0.4 percent were geocoded.

“It may be that vendors who have access to Twitter’s firehose can find more signal in the noise,” he said. “But the amount of data made available to the rest of us leaves me not very bullish on generating meaningful summaries of Twitter activity by location.”

At the bigger-budget end of the spectrum, one of Geofeedia’s first large media clients, The Associated Press, now uses the Canadian-based SAM instead. Hannah Cushman, who is AP’s social media editor in Chicago, recently used a combination of geographic and keyword searches to build out a network of about 40 students at a high school in South Dakota where a shooting was foiled. She forwarded handles of social media users in batches to AP’s reporter in Sioux Falls, who landed an interview in which he was able to confirm details she had seen on Twitter.

“Whenever I start poking around in a new place, I almost always start with a geosearch to pick up the regional lingo, or any relevant hashtags, which I can then use to build better searches,” Cushman said. The organizational functions in SAM help because she can look at the posts the social team has pulled into a story and catch up without the overhead of running those initial geographic searches.

“More than the tools, I think people’s behavior dictates how useful explicit geo info is on each platform,” she added—in her experience, Twitter is less useful than Instagram.

Of course, searching for geotags is just one way that newsrooms are deploying a variety of “social listening” tools, which also can identify trends and unusual activity on social media. Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote for CJR over the summer about Dataminr and Spike. Both services are used by the Los Angeles Times, which first learned of the recent shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon when Dataminr program flagged a tweet about the incident based on previously set search terms.

I was on the phone with Alexandra Manzano, the paper’s director of audience engagement, just as the Oregon shooting story was breaking.

“I think these tools are great,” she said. “They are tools we use consistently to monitor breaking situations but also use them as ways to know what matters to people, what people are looking for. It lets us see trends early. They help us to be extremely fast to breaking news and flag us to things faster than the more traditional ways.”

While news organizations and reporters with access to these tools may be at an advantage, plenty of reporters find information and sources on social media without them. Back at Chicago’s NBC 5, reporter Regina Waldrop doesn’t have access to the station’s Geofeedia account, but she still finds plenty of material to advance her reporting.

“I don’t use anything expensive, just Twitter and Facebook,” she said. “I have really good luck with both and even gotten some exclusives via Twitter.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.