How Twitter is Changing Narrative Storytelling: A Case Study of the Boston Marathon Bombings

By Mary Kate Brogan
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


Understanding social media, an integral part of 21st century American life, is more important than ever. On the one-year anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, it is clear that Twitter was a primary source of information for many Americans, despite the vast inaccuracies tweeted by trusted sources throughout the days following the attack. This case study based on content analysis found that 10 authoritative organizations, including five news organizations, provided news and feature stories through their tweets – sometimes at the expense of accuracy to be first on their stories. They also posted tweets that ensured people’s safety during the crisis, enlisted help from the public, and offered perfunctory roles, such as sending out comforting messages for grieving people.

I. Introduction

American society is built on a culture of impatience. Americans focus on time –- time wasted, time saved, time lost -– using every spare moment to prevent missing a beat. The introduction of the 24-hour news cycle has made the demand for constant updates a prominent part of American culture. As social media’s presence in society grows, many news outlets are working to feed the “I want it now” desires of media consumers. In the event of a catastrophe, the demand for information becomes much stronger, but at a cost. The accuracy of breaking news may suffer for the sake of speed. For example, many news sources, including Onward State of Penn State University, CBS News and The Huffington Post, misreported the death of Joe Paterno hours before his actual death in 2012.1 This same phenomenon has occurred numerous times in breaking news, and it shows the way society is changing as a result of the speed of news. Twitter is one of many tools changing the distribution of breaking news.

The Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, were a major event in media coverage and in American society, and the coverage of this event has long since been a topic of discussion. This study explores how social media coverage of the bombings, specifically on Twitter, impacted the storytelling narrative.

II. Literature Review

The literature surrounding social media and the Boston bombings centers on three main topics: narrative storytelling, social media in journalism, and stereotypes in media coverage.

Narrative storytelling

Narrative storytelling has been an important part of history as a whole, moving from oral history to written communication. Jeff Kisselhoff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961 is an example of how narrative storytelling can be an effective form of communicating an event or a series of events. The book’s description summarizes this idea: “The Box re-creates the old-time TV years through more than three hundred interviews with those who invented, manufactured, advertised, produced, directed, wrote, and acted in them.”2 This form of storytelling is the same form replicated through Twitter – hundreds, thousands, even millions of voices breathing life into a current event by giving their perspectives on that topic. Kisselhoff interweaves interviews and uses them, without any insertion of commentary, to tell the story of how television evolved. This is an incredible form of storytelling because it provides opinions from the era without an author’s bias and without an editor picking and choosing what information goes into it. It is straight from the mouths of interviewees, and thus it tells a different story than one writer could manage alone. This intersection of opinions and facts is part of the beauty of Twitter as a source of news and commentary.

Tweeting stories has been a popular form of storytelling since Twitter first emerged in 2006. Storify has also been an important tool in that storytelling. Storify is a service that allows users to curate posts using information gathered from a variety of social media sources, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. This service allows people to select various social media posts and insert them into an online archive to supply greater populations of people with easier access to the information. News sources like the Pew Research Center, NBC News and NPR have done their own narrative storytelling via Storify. The Pew Research Center has used Storify to discuss news and social media through tweets and Facebook posts on how and why Pew’s followers and fans get news on social media.3 NBC News utilized the service for a more hard-news compilation: live updates on the TSA officer who was shot and killed at LAX in November 2013. NBC News mainly used Twitter for live breaking news, but sometimes incorporated other links and Instagram photos into coverage.4 In 2013, NPR’s Twitter account, @Todayin1963, began documenting what had happened in real-time 50 years prior, culminating in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its aftermath.5 All of these are strong examples of how Twitter narratives are becoming more common in media, both in feature pieces and in breaking news situations, and how Storify and other similar tools are preserving those pieces of history in one accessible place.

Social media in journalism

According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the percentage of Americans who get news from social media increased from 2 percent in 2008, to 7 percent in 2010, and to a whopping 20 percent of those individuals surveyed in 2012.6 As these numbers increase, it is apparent that social media interaction is a vital part of the news cycle for journalists and for civilians.

Twitter is one of the top social media forums in use around the world today and is the 10th most visited website online.7 Because of the public nature of many Twitter accounts and the sheer number of users, Twitter has become a tool that spurs conversation, disperses information, and even delivers and breaks news. Twitter has been a way for journalists to connect with the masses during large-scale tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, but it has also been a source of great confusion when those journalists publish incorrect content.

A study by Kwak, Lee, Park, and Moon (2010) states that Twitter is not just a social network, but that the platform may also be a news source. “We have classified the trending topics based on the active period and the tweets and show that the majority (more than 85%) of topics are headline news or persistent news in nature.”8 If news takes up more than 85 percent of the topics discussed on Twitter, it’s safe to say that Twitter users are being bombarded with news in their feeds. The fact that a growing number of people get their news first from social media shows that Kwak et al.’s categorization of Twitter as a news medium could very well be accurate.

Hermida explains how social networks have changed the function of journalism and the idea of verification in his article, “Tweets and Truth: Journalism as a discipline of collaborative verification.”

“The development of social networks for real-time news and information, and the integration of social media content in the news media, creates tensions for a profession based on a discipline of verification. This paper suggests that social media services such as Twitter provide platforms for collaborative verification, based on a system of media that privileges distributed over centralised expertise, and collective over individual intelligence.”9

It is clear, as Hermida’s study states, that Twitter users value a greater number of observations rather than one seemingly reliable source’s information – in a nutshell, users want confirmation by many, instead of taking the word of experts. This ideology has presented a nest of potential problems for journalists reporting on a breaking news event via social media. It also offers a reminder that fact checking is still a worthwhile endeavor in breaking news reporting.

Another clear reminder of this fact is a Nieman Reports’ analysis of the interaction between social media and news media in the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. While this topic is quite similar to the discussion point at hand, the main difference between these reports and the current research is the act of delving into individual tweets and what they meant in terms of cultural impact as well as journalism. According to Qu, journalists “have three capabilities that are vital to the news ecosystem: broadcasting, credibility and storytelling.”10 Qu explains that these capabilities come with responsibility and the role of journalists is constantly changing as a result of social media.

The accuracy of tweets is often difficult to determine, although companies like Dataminr are getting better at pinpointing the accuracy of tweets in crisis situations like the Boston Marathon bombings and the explosion that shook East Harlem in March 2014. Ted Bailey, CEO of Dataminr, says aggregate Twitter data is helping reveal what happens on the ground.

“During breaking news events, even a small number of tweets can provide enough data for our algorithms to characterize the event and determine with high confidence the validity, relevance and actionability of rapidly emerging information... People acted collectively as an on-the-ground detection and sensory network, depicting the scene with granularity long before first responders or reporters arrived.”11

Twitter is undeniably a force in the current landscape of news, but how does it function in the scheme of a large-scale catastrophe like the Boston Marathon bombings?

Social media was not a huge factor in the London Underground bombings of 2005 because it was still in its infancy. Reading explored the effects of mobile witnessing in her paper, “The London bombings: Mobile witnessing, mortal bodies and globital time.” Mobile witnessing is the phenomenon of using mobile phones to report news as it happens, and “globital time arises from two major dynamics at work today: digitization and globalization. Together these dynamics are creating new affective logics within media, culture and society.”12 With these two frameworks of mobile witnessing and globital time in place, it becomes clear how the world is changing due to the digital, global and mobile age. Reading discusses the fact that because of mobile witnessing and digitization, the world is able to engage with what is happening almost immediately, especially when compared to a similar London Underground bombing in 1897. While this story spread internationally, this news did not do so with the urgency or rate that the 2005 bombings did because the spread of information was significantly slower more than a century earlier. Within the last 20 years, and even within the past decade since the 2005 bombings, the speed with which information is disseminated has increased exponentially. Cell phone photos and videos have made an enormous difference in the media’s coverage of both the London Underground and Boston Marathon bombings, and in the live updates of these events.

Stereotypes in media coverage

Many stereotypes in the media contribute to different framings of conversation in terrorist attacks. In a similar time period, Woods investigated the relationship between the public’s “perceived risk of terrorism” in the four years before and four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Woods says, “Articles that associated the risk of terrorism with Islam had greater [perceived] risk levels than articles that did not,” which portrays the prominence of the assumed association between Islam and terrorism, and shows that the media had a strong impact on the image of Islam in relation to reporting on terrorism.13 It is quite possible that coverage, both on Twitter and in news media, of the Boston Marathon bombings included language stating that Muslims were the culprits in the bombings without any clear evidence. This was one of many misconceptions that confused journalists during the bombings and caused catastrophic mistakes from reporting too quickly without verification.

A great amount of media attention has come out of one particular tweet shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. Rush, a columnist and occasional Fox News commentator, tweeted the following:

“@erikrush Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon! #bostonmarathon.”

According to an article in the Independent, another Twitter user asked whether he blamed Muslims for the attack, and he responded, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all,” a tweet he later deleted.14 While Rush maintained that his statement was a joke, some news outlets and individuals were outraged, while others joined the bandwagon, blaming Muslims as well. This shows the power of one tweet to change the direction of a narrative and of a stereotype to fully alter the way some audiences view a crisis.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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Twitter. Facebook. Digg. MySpace. LinkedIn. The list of social media tools could probably run on for paragraphs, and today’s technology changes so rapidly that many industries, including corporations and news media... MORE»
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