Joplin Reporting, 140 Characters at a Time

By Andrew Gibson

Journalism isn’t dying. It’s just changing.

Take the Joplin tornado. Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times, says some of his “best reporting was on Twitter.” If you read the archive of his firsthand tweets about the tornado, it’s easy to see what he means.

Stelter was originally headed to Chicago to cover Oprah Winfrey’s last show. But he decided on a whim to extend his journey and travel to Joplin to interview survivors for the Times. Stelter soon realized he didn’t even have a pen. That’s when Twitter came in handy.

In addition to tweeting pictures of the ravaged hospital, Stelter gathered anecdotes showing the subtleties of the disaster. He told the story 140 characters at a time of a man named John searching through the rubble for his father’s pickup truck. John’s father was in the hospital when the tornado plowed through (tweets in reverse chronological order):

Stelter’s experience in Joplin also revealed some weaknesses associated with paperless reporting. The biggest was spotty cell phone reception. Stelter writes on his blog that text messages were his only reliable method of communication, as emails and phone calls to New York rarely went through. He also lists suggestions for improvement:

“If I were planning a newsroom’s response to emergencies, I would buy those backpacks that have six or eight wireless cards in them, all connected to different cell tower operators, thereby upping the chances of finding a signal at any given time.”


“In areas with spotty service, Instagram and Twitter apps need to be able to auto-upload until the picture or tweets gets out.” (Stelter had to manually refresh several times to upload the pictures.)

How has the media world reacted to Stelter’s Twitter reporting? Jeff Jarvis from Business Insider says it’s an example of how a news article is not “the goal of journalism” but rather “a value-added luxury.” Stelter did eventually write copy for the Times from a wireless-friendly McDonald’s, but Jarvis thinks Stelter’s on-the-fly tweets were part of “something more precious: reporting.”

Mathew Ingram, a writer for GigaOM, a technology-news website, thinks Stelter’s admission that some of his “best reporting was on Twitter” was a breakthrough for The New York Times:

“That Stelter has made use of Twitter and a personal Tumblr blog and Instagram — i.e., three things that are not controlled by the New York Times in any way, nor hosted by the newspaper — seems like a significant event to me (I asked Stelter whether he got approval from the NYT to do this and will post a response if I get one: Update: Brian said that he didn’t ask for permission because “prior experiences” assured him it wouldn’t be a problem).”

But even if Stelter’s tweets represent some kind of journalism revolution, his ethics remain unchanged. Stelter’s fourth Joplin-related tweet:

Stelter was already well-respected as a journalist. Responsible reporting has boosted him into the levels of stardom.

Read Stelter’s blog for a detailed account of his Joplin experience.

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