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Posted on 05.02.2013

Citizen Manhunt: The Rise of Social Media in Breaking News

If you are one of 63 percent of Americans who say they followed the tragic Boston Marathon bombing news very closely, it's likely you kept up with the story on television. According to a report released by Pew Research Center last week, 80 percent of Americans followed the story on TV. About half (49 percent) say they tracked the story online or a mobile device.

The national survey, conducted April 18-21 among 1,002 adults, reports a quarter of Americans (26 percent) got their information on the incident from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. More than half (56 percent) of young people ages 18-29 got their news and information from social networking sites.

For the first time, I watched a breaking news story unfold primarily on Twitter. Call me a news junkie, but it was fascinating to follow the updates on the suspect on Twitter (hashtag #manhunt) and listen to the reports on cable news. From my estimate, breaking news on Twitter was about 10 minutes ahead of broadcast news reporting.

While there was a lot of misinformation being tweeted and retweeted, Twitter users were streaming local Boston news and police scanners as well as sharing the information with their followers. This created a crowdsourced manhunt that some have questioned and others praised in the search and ultimate capture of the suspect.

With more than 500 million registered users, Twitter has evolved into a mass communication vehicle capable of disseminating breaking news, spreading misinformation and mobilizing citizens - all in real-time. Clearly, Twitter has reached "it" status for breaking news as The New Yorker acknowledges in a recent blog post: 

"The issue, in part, is velocity: news has never moved faster than it does now, and few events of the past several years have captured America's attention like the Boston bombings. Every new bit of information was instantly, indiscriminately sucked into the media vacuum. If there is a medium of this moment, it is Twitter."

I couldn't agree more. What's your opinion on the role of social media and Twitter in breaking news? Does it harm or hurt in issues affecting national security?      


Julie Lilliston was a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. You can view more of Julie's blogs here.  

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