New York Times' Sona Patel: Planning and curation are key to real-time coverage

by Claritza Jimenez
Oct 30, 2018 in Social Media

Although breaking news events can be chaotic, the process for covering them live on social media and the web doesn't have to be.

Planning is key to helping live news coverage go more smoothly, says Sona Patel, staff editor for social media at The New York Times.

Patel recently shared her advice on best practices for real-time reporting with attendees of the Kiplinger digital media fellowship program at Ohio State University. Whether journalists cover breaking news from the field or stay behind working in the newsroom, she says, they are doing real-time reporting.

Here are some takeaways from Patel’s talk:

Plan in advance for how the newsroom will cover major breaking news:

  • Staffers should know what is expected from them in terms of contributions to social media accounts, live blogging or quick blog posts. Avoid overlapping roles. Maybe one reporter will live blog while another works on reporting and writing a full article.
  • Reporters should understand in advance that they should not share social media updates based on what they hear on a police scanner or overhear from someone at the scene of breaking news. Verify before sharing.
  • Do in-house training on apps and equipment that will come in handy during breaking news. Do not send out a reporter to the field and expect them to use smartphone to record video if they’ve never done it before.
  • Plan how people in the newsroom will communicate with reporters in the field. Will they send text messages, use Twitter or talk on the telephone?
  • Decide what kind of treatment a breaking news event will receive. Will it go on the homepage? Will smartphone alerts be sent out? Will you create a live blog or live chat? Patel said live chats have worked well for giving context to the crisis in Ukraine.
  • If possible, come up with a Twitter hashtag for the breaking news story. Collaborate with other news organizations to decide on one hashtag.

Check out these useful tools for real-time reporting:

  • 5-0 Radio Police Scanner Lite, available on iPhone and Android. It features the largest collection of live police, firefighter and radio feeds, and you can listen to dispatches while you're on the go.

  • Glympse allows you to share your location with anyone for a specific period of time. It helps newsrooms keep track of reporters.

  • GroupMe is a group messaging service which allows newsrooms and reporters in the field to communicate with one another while covering breaking news.

  • Live-blogging platforms ScribbleLive and CoverItLive let you file updates in real time.

Focus on curation to help your audience follow and understand the breaking news story:

Patel said curation is key to real-time reporting. News organizations need to filter content for the audience to help them make sense of what is happening. Here are her curation tips:

  • Do not bombard and overwhelm readers with too much information. Be selective. Focus on quality, not quantity.
  • Pick and choose what information your institutional account should retweet from individual journalists' social media accounts. Think of it like choosing the best quotes for a news story. At the Times, Patel said the institutional account provides context while reporters supplement the story with more information.
  • Be clear on your news organization’s internal guidelines for re-sharing photos and videos from third parties. Images tend to increase engagement during breaking news, but make sure you have the right to re-use content before you share it. What is your news outlet's policy for crediting photos and videos from third parties? And of course, verify that the photo is accurate before you share it.
  • Have a corrections policy in place. How will your news organization deal with correcting erroneous information?
  • Live blogs tend to give an unfiltered view of news as it happens. Revisit your internal ethics guidelines to ensure that the information you report is ethically sound and accurate.

After the breaking news event, reflect on your coverage and review analytics to determine what did or didn't work:

  • Evaluate the overall quality and quantity of content produced in a breaking news situation.
  • Review website and social media account analytics to see what was engaging to the audience.
  • Review the number of social media updates, the time that lapsed between each update and the responses from readers.
  • Figure out when interest from readers in the breaking news story started to drop off.

Final reminders:

  • Don’t get overwhelmed by doing too much. Ask yourself what will give the audience the best experience.
  • Focus on what you can accomplish with the resources available.
  • Be as transparent as possible with readers when doing live coverage. Share what you know--and be clear about what you're still trying to find out.

Claritza Jimenez is a journalist and television news producer. She currently works at Associated Press Television News (APTN) in Washington, D.C. Jimenez was selected for a 2014 Kiplinger Fellowship. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Phil Roeder.