How To Cover Breaking Stories

One of the biggest news stories of the 21st century initially broke on Twitter - but at the time nobody even knew it was happening. Not even the person doing the tweeting!

It was May 2, 2011, when Sohaib Athar, a chemical engineer living a quiet suburban life in Pakistan, heard a commotion next door. He sent out a tweet that would unwittingly capture history - long before any journalist on the planet had any idea what was going on.

The tweet read: “Helicopter hovering around above Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event).”



Sohaib Athar sent out a tweet that would unwittingly capture history. Photo: Twitter


A few minutes later, he tweeted: "A huge window shaking here in Abbottabad … I hope it’s not the start of something nasty.”

It turned out Mr Athar was live tweeting the US raid that killed 9/11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden - and it was a sign of how much social media had changed the world of journalism, with ordinary citizens “covering” breaking news as it happened and sharing it with the world before actual reporters had even opened their notebooks.



Mr Athar was live tweeting the US raid that killed 9/11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Photo: Twitter


In the case of the Bin Laden story, the Twitter coverage by Mr Athar was an accurate, detailed account from a witness to an amazing moment in history. At Macleay College journalism, we use it as an example of both the changing nature of media and as an example of when social media got it right 

The problem for journalists is that social media often gets it wrong, or misses key details, or doesn’t tell the whole story. It has become an essential tool for covering breaking news, whether it be in major international stories like the Bin Laden raid to run-of-the-mill local stories when journalists can use social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to track events as they happen.

But a key part of journalism training these days is teaching young reporters to beware the pitfalls of relying on social media for information.

Fake posts are abundant, and they are known to proliferate wildly during times of major news breaking - we have all seen fake pictures of sharks swimming in flooded shopping centres and on freeways during natural disasters, and of fake crowd pictures being used to inflate crowd sizes during political protests.



An example of viral fake news. A great white shark swimming alongside a white jeep in the floodwater on a freeway in Houston, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Photo: The Irish Times


And of course, we live in the era of “fake news” - when false information is disseminated via social media on an industrial scale. This happened most famously in the 2016 US election, helped along by the well documented interference of the Russian government. Even in the last federal election in Australia, there were notorious examples of lies being spread online - with stories attributing false quotes on Muslim immigration to Labor leader Bill Shorten, for example, and many people being taken in by a disinformation campaign about a non-existent “death tax”.

So how do reporters weed out the truth from the lies?



Macleay journalism students get field reporting experience from day dot, through their internships and class activities.


There are many tricks of the trade. Often it amounts to common sense basic journalism - checking the source of the information, and checking if it has been reported anywhere else. Multiple sources are essential before you report breaking news based on social media posts.

In addition, there is a checklist of things reporters can use to make sure they are not being duped.

If a picture or tweet purports to contain current information from a breaking news story, validate the details in the social media post - check the claimed location against other sources from the same place. If there is a video or photograph, use the background details to dig deeper. A car number plate in a photograph can confirm that a photo was taken in a particular city or country. Check the sky: if it is sunny and blue, check the current weather forecast in the alleged location - do they match? Look for names on buildings, then check if those buildings really exist with a simple Google check

And of course, nothing beats going directly to the source.

If someone posts on Facebook or Twitter, a reporter should approach them directly via the same medium - and ask them if they can also talk via telephone. Ask them for further corroborating information. And do a quick online check of their claimed identity. See how often they post. Do they have other social media accounts? Do they appear to be trusted by other sources you know to be reliable?

Social media has become an essential tool of the digital age and has transformed the way reporters operate. And by employing some basic but rigorous research techniques, it can be a powerful addition to the journalistic arsenal in covering breaking news - without being a trap for making embarrassing mistakes.



 The unsung heroes behind breaking news - Macleay journalism students with AAP video journalist and guest lecturer, Andrew Leeson. Photo: Hatch Macleay


Journalism at Macleay College

Students become working journalists from the first day they step into Macleay. They work on real stories in a real newsroom across all media platforms.

Journalism students are taught by industry experts that are up to date with the latest trends and are well connected in the industry.

Curious to know more about the Journalism programs at Macleay? Check out the student run Journalism website here. 

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