At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez answers a question about Twitter from a journalism student in Brazil.
How do journalists use Twitter at their jobs? —Diogo Marques
Thanks for such a great question. Back when I started my own Twitter account in August 2011, as a reporter for El Nuevo Herald in Miami, Twitter felt like a bother, this thing we were supposed to use to draw readers to our stories or build our brand. I’d occasionally tweet from marathon City Commission meetings I covered or post links to articles I liked. But it didn’t feel like it naturally fit into my job.
Boy, how things have changed. For many journalists, Twitter has become a powerful reporting tool for crowdsourcing ideas and tips, a platform to tell stories in new ways, and a place to engage with readers and one another.
One journalist whose Twitter feed I particularly admire is The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he used the social media platform to share his reporting on spending by Donald Trump’s foundation as he went along. Instead of worrying about getting scooped, he did this out in the open for anybody to see, and asked his followers to help him advance his reporting. He soon had a “virtual army” of reporting assistants, including a Florida woman who helped him locate a portrait of Trump that Trump had purchased through the foundation by scanning through online photos of a Trump golf resort. If you haven’t already, check out this incredible essay he wrote about what it was like covering Trump that year.
At ProPublica, we use Twitter in a variety of ways. We turn to it and other social media platforms to let folks know how they can best come to us with information. We’ve done that while reporting on topics ranging from shelters for immigrant children to maternal mortality.
We also write “threads” of tweets based on our reporting, to promote stories, highlight specific pieces we think are important and even serve as stories themselves. For example, ProPublica Illinois published an 18-tweet thread on how Chicago gets its guns to accompany our first investigation when we launched last fall. The thread showcased images of a letter written by a man convicted after illegally selling guns, court documents and photos — in addition to providing an overview of the story by my colleague Mick Dumke.
Just like our stories, this thread was edited before it was published. That’s because we see these longer threads as self-contained stories of sorts that need to be vetted for accuracy and fairness.
Sometimes, the threads tell stories we don’t publish elsewhere. Before we had even launched, we’d published our very first thread after realizing that we had disciplinary information on a Chicago police officer whose Facebook posts had drawn scrutiny. That thread, written by my colleagues Jodi S. Cohen, Logan Jaffe and Sandhya Kambhampati, became a critical moment in our tiny shop’s embryonic stage; we learned we could add value and context to the daily news cycle without doing a traditional story, and that Twitter could be a new and powerful friend.
In my own reporting, I now use Twitter to keep tabs on what people are saying about issues I’m covering, and to connect with them. To do this, I log in through TweetDeck, an interface that allows you to do more interesting things on Twitter, including creating “columns” of tweets based on specific search terms. For my ongoing reporting on Chicago parking tickets and debt, for example, I have a column that pulls up tweets that mention the words “city sticker” and “chicago.”
If I see some interesting chatter, I might reply or send a message to people asking if they want to talk. I’ve found sources this way — and story ideas.
On a more regular basis, journalists use Twitter to stay on top of the headlines or post real-time updates on important meetings or events they’re covering. Reporters at the trial of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer recently convicted of second-degree murder for killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, tweeted constantly from the courtroom. Their short dispatches helped the rest of us keep up with the often dramatic testimony as if we were there, too.
I don’t want to leave the impression that everything about Twitter is great. Far from it. Twitter can feel like an echo chamber where reporters, policymakers, pop stars and Russian trolls go hear themselves talk. Twitter also subjects some reporters to harassment and a level of toxic energy that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman has described as “the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face.” She got so frustrated with the vitriol, she had to take a break from the medium.
What’s more, most people, like my brother who works in construction and my elderly neighbor from Ecuador, don’t pay attention to it. And though I love and use Twitter, what brings me more joy and rewards as a reporter is interactions with people in the real world.
We’re all figuring this out as we go along. I want to end this on a happy note because the truth is that, despite the drawbacks, Twitter can also be fun. Recently, some journalists in Detroit discovered a new use for Twitter: Getting ProPublica to send them pizza.