CASE STUDY: Using Twitter to report the recent Taser case in Columbia

On March 18, around 5:30 p.m., a man was shot with a Taser on Ninth Street in Columbia. Here’s the lede from the Columbia Missourian report:

Police shocked a man with a Taser after he reportedly assaulted a Columbia police officer during an incident at Lakota Coffee Co. on Ninth Street on Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the Missourian didn’t get this story posted until 6:39 p.m. March 19 — a full 24 hours after the news happened. The Columbia Tribune didn’t do that much better in its report — the first story the Trib published came at 12:51 p.m. March 19. It was later updated at 1:41 p.m.

So why does it take the Trib 18 hours to turn a significant crime story? And why does it take the Missourian even longer? Easy: Both pieces are one-source stories from the spokeswoman at the Columbia Police Department.

Full disclosure: I am the opinion editor at the Missourian, but I’m currently home on paternity leave with my second child. I’m pretty disconnected from the newsroom right now, though I’m still getting my usual load of news releases and inter-office memos via e-mail (i.e. I’m still on the listserv). I did not get in touch with the Missourian about this story or for this blog post.

I first learned of the story through Twitter when I saw this tweet:

He wasn’t the only witness either:

She saw it, too:

Clearly, there were witnesses, but none appeared in either story. That’s a shame, because Tasers are a controversial issue within the Columbia community and has been for a while. One group of activists is completely opposed to Tasers, saying they’re too dangerous and can cause accidental deaths. The other side sees it as a useful, justified and necessary law-enforcement tool. To both sides, this is news: It’s either another example of an unneccessary use of force, or it’s a good example of the dangers police officers face and a textbook argument for why we should be equipping them with the best tools for the job.

Whichever way you lean, it’s news. So why wait to report it? Why not report what you know as you know it, like she did:

And as for this one-source thing — why? Witnesses are clearly willing to talk about it:

Plus, news spreads quickly over social media (check out all the retweets):

Here’s how I would have done it if I wasn’t up to my elbows in diapers:

1. Report what you know as you know it: Confirm someone was shot with a Taser. Publish that. Then, start contacting witnesses. Get to the scene ASAP and start asking questions. Start making contacts on Twitter and Facebook — ask them to call the office or to let you DM them your cell number.

2. Continue publishing facts as you can confirm. If a witness saw a police officer get punched, put it in with attribution. You don’t have to wait for the official spokeswoman comment if you have an eye witness. But do be careful with the language — don’t make anyone guilty or a victim, just report the facts. Let the reader decide.

3. When the official spokeswoman is ready to tell the official side, add it to the story. And while you have her ear, ask her to corroborate your witness statements. If the stories differ, be transparent about it.

And most importantly — don’t just put the story on your site and hope people will come find it. Use those same social networks to get the word out that you have the story.

Need a good notes tool? Give Evernote a try

Raise your hand if you’re a Mac user and you’re so totally over using Stickies.

Talk about a pain — handy for storing snippets of information, completely lame for desktop functionality. I need virtual pieces of paper in my face all the time about as much as I need the real thing junking up my screen.

My solution for a long time was Xpad, which was essentially TextEdit with an organizing system. But it was free, easy to install and didn’t hog any memory to speak of. But it wasn’t all that easy for searching, and eventually it just broke — it stopped saving files. I e-mailed tech support to no avail. I tried a re-install. Nothing worked.

Then, I found Evernote.

For the grand price of nothing, I am now able to save these notes into a handy desktop interface:

The only thing I don’t like about it is the ad, but you can get rid of that and take advantage of other premium content for $5 a month. Personally, I find the free version to be everything I need and more, but I’m also mostly just saving text files. Freeloaders like myself get 40MB monthly upload allowance; paying the monthly fee gets you 500MB.

Evernote will also do audio notes and allow you to post notes by e-mail, though I haven’t played with these services yet. The iPhone app is pretty sweet too for grabbing and saving items to yourself, even if you’re only using it on an iPod touch, like myself. And if you forget your mobile and don’t have your own computer handy, you can sign in via the Web site and grab whatever you need.

Another handy feature is the Mozilla plugin, which allows you to save copies of Web pages, snippets of text or photos in one click.

Keeping things organized is really easy too. You can search by file name or by keeping related notes organized through tags. You can also organize notes into several different notebooks.

Overall, Evernote offers a lot of bang for no bucks. And it sure works a helluva lot better than Stickies.

My social media presentation for the spring reporting class

I’m giving a lecture on social media to the reporting class on Thursday. Here is a copy of the PowerPoint I put together for it:

Is Facebook Turning Into the New Google News? :: MinOnline

This is why your news organization needs to be on Facebook.

Oh, and here’s another.

GoogleGoogleGoogleGoogle

Search four Google windows at any one time. This is a multi-tasker’s dream.

Take a break with The Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song)

If you’re a copy editor or have ever worked in a newspaper newsroom, you’ll identify with this. Enjoy!

@FakeAPStylebook offers good lessons for journalists

I’m going to go out on a limb here and hypothesize that just about every copy editor in the world has now heard about @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter.

If you haven’t, you really should take a moment to check it out. Like any copy editor worth hers or his salt, @FakeAPStylebook is snarky, funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But wrapped up within the 140-character-or-less zingers are good lessons for journalists, especially young reporters. Things like:

“Expat” is jargon and should not be used unless specifically referring to people no longer named Pat.

If spelling out an acronym such as WTF or FUBAR, be sensitive to readers who dislike cursing by writing “fuck” in a whisper.

I recently put together my own batch of @FakeAPStylebook to use in the classroom, and I thought I’d share them here as well. Enjoy: