The people formerly known as sources

Earlier this week, a report of “man overboard” from a Seattle-based ferry put the local Coast Guard station into immediate action. As boats and helicopters were being launched, real-time updates were being posted to Twitter. By the Coast Guard.

This full disintermediation, when the audience can get the news and information directly from the source, is only going to increase. For journalists, an official source using Twitter is a double-edge sword: the news organization doesn’t have to wait for press releases, but the information is not necessarily unbiased nor objective. Dale Steinke, who runs the web site for King 5 News, said his team was closely watching the Coast Guard’s Twitter stream (@uscgd13) but didn’t broadcast or publish anything directly from it. (And King 5, of course, was posting updates to its own Twitter feed: @king5seattle.)

“Our newsroom treated Twitter like a scanner for purposes of our on-air and online coverage, following tweets from the U.S. Coast Guard (@uscgd13) and the Washington State DOT (@wsdot), which we verified independently before publishing,” Steinke told me via email. “We DM’d them for updates and we put callouts to our followers for anyone who was on the ferry. We also found a photo @JohnLivengood took on the ferry and we asked for permission to use it on air and online. In the meantime, we retweeted the link to it, http://yfrog.com/0kdnkj.”

Brian Forth, a friend of mine who runs a Web site building company, was one of the people who were following the developing story on Twitter and blogged about it the next day.

During the next 15 minutes, I learned that the Coast Guard had scrambled a helicopter from Port Angeles as well as a boat from Station Seattle to assist in the search. Eventually, the tweet “@All the Coast Guard is standing down from the search” was posted after learning the report came from someone that thought they saw someone in the water. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

So, what’s the point? The point is that there is a lot that could’ve happened. The fact that users were connected meant the Coast Guard could’ve asked for help, and King 5 could determine if it was worth sending a crew to report, etc.

The Coast Guard, it turns out, has an ambitious social media strategy which you can hear about in the video below. We often talk about the “people formerly known as the audience” (via Jay Rosen) who are now participating in reporting the news. Increasingly, journalists need to consider how to deal with  “people formerly known as sources,” too.

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