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Tweeting Under Fire: A Conversation With Storyful’s Mark Little

Mark LittleMainstream news reports about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East increasingly draw on tweets, home videos and pictures from local eyewitnesses.

One site many journos rely on for this type of reporting is Storyful, which monitors activists and local citizens who use Twitter to coordinate, distribute aid and spread news.

“Twitter is the place where conversations and communities develop out of these events,” says Storyful founder Mark Little. “There are people who say things like, ‘Hearing reports of protest on this square, in Damascus,’ and someone comes back and says, ‘No, no, that protest has moved to another square.’”

The online community around the story is the gateway to eyewitnesses, so Storyful compiles Twitter lists for different countries and regions of people who are reliable in crises.

“It comes down a lot to networks that you trust over time,” Little says. “We have a lot of activist groups in the Middle East right now who are using these channels for content and information. We observe them over time, and over time we can see whether they do release credible information or whether they’re just a cover for people who scrape content.”

During a crisis, the hub imports those lists as TweetDeck columns, which it watches and updates. But the real key to finding quality content is engagement.

“You might see somebody sharing a YouTube video with the rest of the members of the community,” he says. “You see that video, you don’t understand what the people are chanting. You would jump in and say to that individual, ‘First of all can you tell us where that came from, are you the source, what are those people saying,’ and if that person says, ‘I got it from somebody else,’ you would ask them who it was, and clearly you would start to investigate the nature of the community at that stage.”

Although Storyful has proved to be invaluable in covering breaking news, there are some limitations of the site, such as translating tweets written in foreign languages. Currently, his team has to use various platforms, like Google Translate and Facebook, simultaneously, which requires having several browsers and tabs open. To make that task easier, Storyful is developing tools to search for specific terms within its Twitter lists, which TweetDeck does not now enable.

“If I want to search for Michelle Bachmann mentions among people living in Iowa, now I could do it two ways. I could go into TweetDeck and set up two columns, one for Michelle Bachman, one for Iowa, and another for the two terms together. That’s a pretty blunt instrument,” Little says. “Much better if I could put in all the top journalists in Iowa, see what they’re saying about Michelle Bachmann, see how many YouTubes are being shared about Michelle Bachmann. And that’s what we’re developing, is the next step to allow us to filter my trusted source, and then, within the trusted source, filter it by keyword and by tag.”

Storyful is also developing new methods for determining which sources the communities trust more than others. And the site isn’t only focused on Twitter; it actively searches other social networks, particularly Facebook and YouTube. Though journalists have yet to fully utilize Google+, Little also sees great potential in that emerging platform.

“Circles are almost the best physical representation of this community arising from a news event that I’ve seen so far,” Little says. “Google+ will be a natural home for news journalists.”

– BRENT YARNELL

Get more tips on social media reporting in mediabistro.com’s Avant Guild feature, 6 Ways Journalists Can Find Sources on Twitter.

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