From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 6 NO. 1
How Twitter is Changing Narrative Storytelling: A Case Study of the Boston Marathon Bombings
Several patterns can be found in the narrative of these sources on Twitter. Of the types of tweets found in this data, most tweets can be categorized as one of the following: news, features, safety, informative messages, and perfunctory information.
News sources had a strong desire to be first and many left accuracy at the wayside because of this drive. CNN, the New York Post and The Boston Globe all had inaccurate reports during the aftermath of the crisis. This shows one of the pitfalls of narrative storytelling through Twitter: not all storytellers will be accurate in their information. But one benefit of the narrative storytelling aspect of Twitter is that others who are interested in a topic will question or correct information that is inaccurate, like the Boston PD did with CNN’s mis-tweet about having a suspect in custody.
In an ongoing event like this — with the attack, the aftermath and the manhunt — it was compelling to observe the patterns of news organizations as they reported, and sometimes came to conclusions, on events as they occurred. The nature of this event was different from past crisis situations like Sept. 11 and the London Underground bombings because the Boston bombings were not perpetrated by suicide bombers. These were individuals who had planted bombs and walked away unscathed, which led to some news organizations trying to swiftly place blame on certain parties.
The tweet from Rush (“Let’s kill them [Muslims] all”) mentioned in the literature review is one extreme example of the underlying stereotypes that permeated this narrative in the way that news sources covered it. The New York Post has been accused of racial profiling of the plaintiffs in the libel suit the paper recently settled. As news organizations tried to piece together the aftermath and search for subjects, many of the underlying stereotypes of bombers came through in the news coverage of some sources, particularly the New York Post.
As Woods addressed in “What We Talk About when We Talk About Terrorism,” articles that associate terrorism with Islam incite more fear than articles that do not.19 This shows the permeability of racial profiling and stereotypes and illustrates why they are tactics journalists must avoid. This effect was not something that Rush or the New York Post seemed to have considered in their coverage of this the bombings.
Other sources simply prematurely tweeted about the capture of a suspect, which was likely a product of several factors: wanting to be first to report the news, providing constant coverage and waiting on a development, and a general desire by the American public — journalists included — for the suspect to be captured. News media outlets often wrote tweets as soon as possible following confirmation of information or sometimes without it. This led to making storytelling more difficult because people were unaware of what was true and what was inaccurate.
While there were many mistakes, this type of narrative was different from past stories because of news sources’ different function in this case. Many newspapers sought justice and searched for answers on their own, whether because they wanted more readership or because they felt it was their duty to the public to get to the bottom of the situation. News organizations contributed a great amount to the storytelling narrative of this disaster because of their enormous influence in the public sphere.
In the days following the bombing, national news sources, such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, took it upon themselves to discover gripping, emotional stories about the bombings. Case in point, the New York Post published a story about two brothers who both lost legs. There was also a story about Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died from his injuries sustained at the finish line. These stories are different than many of the breaking news updates, but they were certainly valuable in telling the story in a new way that was more humane and that more readers could identify with.
The Boston Police and Boston Marathon officials worked with news sources to provide information about safety, particularly to make sure that people stay in their homes during the manhunt and not congregate in large groups following the bombings. This safety element is important to telling the story because it shows how authority figures were trying to keep the people calm, collected, and safe. It provides a new angle of storytelling as authorities worked to provide some control over the situation and gives a greater sense of calm to the community.
Informational tweets were the specialties of sources like the Boston Police, Cambridge Police, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Marathon’s official Twitter accounts. These tweets were not quite as common as news or breaking news tweets, but they provided much-needed site information to people in need.
Massachusetts General Hospital tweeted about giving blood to help others, a tweet that likely went a long way to reaching people who were looking for ways to help. Tweets like this just gave valuable information to help people get through this tough time and move on with their lives as normally as possible— or even just get themselves out of a crisis situation.
Several sources provided perfunctory information. For example, a post from JetBlue, a marathon sponsor, said “Our thoughts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.” Most of these sources’ tweets focused on customer service, but they would tweet intermittently that they were trying to do their part for the Boston community whatever way they could. These tweets are important to the narrative because they represent a large portion of the corporate contingent of Twitter, many of whom tweeted their sympathies to those affected.
Marathon sponsors’ different types of tweets during the Boston Marathon bombings led to a new type of disaster coverage narrative that had never been used in any situation before. It led to an era of instant factchecking by groups of individuals and, as Hermida theorized, a value of quantity of verification over quality of the source verifying the information, as even qualified sources, as shown in this study, are apt to be wrong on occasion. It led to a purer form of narrative storytelling with the opinions and observations of millions of individuals swirling about in a single platform, often unedited for the world to see. Speed has begun to combine with accuracy through the tweets of people on the ground who can provide a valuable service by simply telling others what they see or confirming the truth or falsehood of rumors for the good of society. While some media professionals warn that ill-intentioned people may claim to be on the ground and fabricate parts of a story, according to a Dow Jones News Fund copy editing program, professionals can easily clarify the validity of a source’s statements in a crisis situation much the same as they have in the past, making sure those individuals are truly on the scene. Methods of verification via Twitter include direct messaging a source to inquire about his or her location and sending a reporter to that area to confirm that the source is there or simply sending a message asking the source to contact a reporter.
Twitter is changing narrative storytelling by providing users with their own personal outlet to discover and provide information that’s important to any current event, including a catastrophe that affects the lives of many. The dawning of the age of Twitter as a source of understanding events as they unfold is still in its infancy, but this study illuminates some of the functions of tweets and how they are changing how stories are communicated to the public.
Overall, there is a clear value in telling stories through Twitter, because of its permeability in a hyperconnected society. While some of the information may not be the most accurate because news organizations are often striving for speed and sacrificing accuracy, there is hope that more organizations will understand the importance of a clear and accurate social media presence during crises and disasters.
While this study is one of the first to analyze Twitter as a narrative storytelling tool in a catastrophe, it is doubtful that it will be the last. As social media’s popularity grows, more and more users will wish to investigate the discussion of news in crisis situations using social media. Future studies may examine the Twitter conversations between sources and regular users on Twitter or may compare social media usage during crises with its use in normal times. Perhaps future researchers will be able to provide further insight into how social media changes news coverage in crisis situations as well.
The author would like to extend enormous thanks to Elon University Professors Naeemah Clark, Laura Roselle, and Brooke Barnett, and G.R. Boynton at the University of Iowa for their guidance, inspiration, advice, and assistance, without which this article could not have been published. The author is also thankful to Professor Byung Lee of Elon University for his supervision and help of revision for this article.