How to approach sources on Twitter when covering tragedies like the Colorado shooting

by Mallary Jean Tenore
Jul 20, 2012 in Social Media

Several journalists have been using Twitter to reach out to eyewitnesses and those who know victims of the Colorado theater shooting.

While it’s common for journalists to reach out to sources on Twitter, it’s more challenging when sources have been affected by a tragedy. When you talk to people at the scene of a crime or disaster, or call them on the phone, you can show your sincerity by the look on your face or the tone of your voice. On Twitter, you can’t do that — and you’re limited by 140 characters.

There are some ways, though, to tactfully contact sources on social media. Here are six related tips.

Be empathetic.

Understand that those who have lost loved ones and friends in a tragedy, or who have been eyewitnesses to one, are in a vulnerable position. Rather than just saying, “Can you call me or email me?” acknowledge how hard this must be for them.

Here’s a sample tweet: “I realize this must be a really hard time for you & I’d like to hear your story/account. Can you contact me at X?” Avoid phrases like “I know what you’re going through.” Such phrases can come off as disingenuous, and suggest that you know exactly what the person is going through.

Lay off the exclamation points.

I saw some reporters use exclamation points in their tweets when reaching out to sources who were at the theater. Including exclamation points can come across as insensitive in the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s best to keep the tone of the tweet fairly neutral.

One punctuation mark that is good to use is the question mark. Rather than saying “Contact me at X,” ask the source to contact you. A request in the form of a question seems less like a demand.

Make sure you’re following the people you reach out to.

Some sources may feel more comfortable sending journalists direct messages rather than calling them or responding publicly on Twitter. To make it easier on sources, follow them so they have this option.

It’s also important to make sure you’re following sources if you’ve asked them to send you a direct message (DM); they can’t DM you if you’re not following them.

Respect sources’ decision not to share information

If sources have made it clear they don’t want to talk, don’t keep pushing them. One way to respond would be to say, “I understand and respect your decision not to talk. If you change your mind, please let me know.” From there, you can try to reach out to other sources who might be more willing to talk.

Some people affected by the theater shooting have suggested they don’t want to talk to the media. Adam Williams, who lost two friends in the Colorado shooting, tweeted: “Like 3 news stations wanna talk to me, Listen I just have friends that I love & would take a bullet for. thats all.”

NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which has been tweeting about the shootings throughout the day, did a good job responding: “@AWWillie Thanks for considering. We know it’s a lot to ask. Can’t imagine.”

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This article first appeared on Poynter Online, IJNet’s partner and the website of the Poynter Institute, a school serving journalism and democracy for more than 35 years. Poynter offers news and training that fits any schedule, with individual coaching, in-person seminars, online courses, webinars and more. The complete article is translated into IJNet’s six other languages with permission.