In the early stages of breaking news, there’s often a tremendous amount of conflicting information. Take this afternoon’s shooting at a psychiatric clinic in Pittsburgh as a prime example. For well over an hour, victim counts varied, and rumors of a second gunman and hostages dominated Twitter and even some media reports.
Here at BreakingNews, we use an internal chat tool — a “backchannel” — to evaluate and confirm updates in real-time. This is just a small slice of the chat (below) during a time in which Lauren Mccullough and Stephanie Clary were trying to get to the bottom of a rumor that a gunman had taken one or more hostages by reaching out to media sources.
But first, let’s set the stage on how we were tracking the story. We’re already following all the Pittsburgh local media on Twitter, and we quickly followed the hospital account. We set up persistent searches against WPIC, UPMC and Presby — all local location names for the shooting location — to see eyewitness reports. We used our BreakingNews.com tool to search for social updates, geo-targeted to Pittsburgh, against a variety of keywords. We constantly refreshed the websites of the Pittsburgh newspaper and TV stations, and we listened to live feeds from one TV stations and a radio station. And of course, we’re monitoring the wire services, too.
About 30 minutes into the story, we saw an increasing volume of tweets claiming that a second gunman had taken one or more hostages. All but one local news organization held off reporting it, and that’s where we pick up our backchannel chat. Lauren and Stephanie DM’d media sources to ask the source of the news, and with conflicting reports, they decided to hold off on the TV station’s report. “It’s all over the place,” Stephanie said, “My feeling is to hold off a bit.” Turns out, there were no hostages and no second gunman.
This slice of conversation took just a few seconds — the chat spanning the story is several pages long — and it enables our team to communicate quickly and make split-second news judgment decisions even though we’re located in three different cities (Seattle, NYC and London). Often, when false rumors are gaining momentum, we’ll send out a warning. And during big stories, we’ll bring a bit of the backchannel to @breaking, our team account. Think of BreakingNews as a real-time “gut check” over the social web, providing trustworthy coverage at the speed of Twitter.
(Post by Cory Bergman, @corybe on Twitter)