The Tuscaloosa News won a Pulitzer prize for its breaking news coverage of a deadly tornado that swept through Alabama last April, Poynter reported. But what made the award-winning coverage so revolutionary for the journalism world was its employment of Twitter and other social media to report on the storm in real time, in addition to traditional coverage—even during power outages, the article said.
As we previously reported, Columbia University announced the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners on Tuesday. Among the winners were online newspapers The Huffington Post and Politico.
The Pulitzer board awarded Tuscaloosa News “for its enterprising coverage of a deadly tornado, using social media as well as traditional reporting to provide real-time updates, help locate missing people and produce in-depth print accounts even after power disruption forced the paper to publish at another plant 50 miles away,” according to a press release.
“I am incredibly proud of the staff here, who worked under very difficult circumstances to get information out as quickly as possible at a time when power wasn’t working and phone lines were out,” said city editor Katherine Lee in Tuscaloosa News. “Every department pitched in, from sports, to photo, to the copy desk and reporting staff.
Poynter reported that not only did journalists’ tweets keep the public informed during every stage of the crisis, but also helped direct emergency responders to where people needed help by tweeting pictures and descriptions of damaged areas.
Pulitzer juror Kathy Best told Poynter that real-time reporting was a crucial factor in the judging this year.
“Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on,” Best said.
In the case of Tuscaloosa News, Twitter was clearly a critical tool in keeping the public aware and updated in a crisis situation. In other circumstances, however, guidelines for when to break the news through Twitter are often much less clear.
As we previously reported, news organizations are beginning to enforce stricter social media policies to prevent journalists with personal Twitter accounts from “scooping” the papers they work for. Organizations like Sky News and the Associated Press now require reporters to inform their organization first before breaking news via their personal Twitter accounts.
The issue of verification is also critical on Twitter. Various news organizations forbid their journalists from retweeting journalists from other news organizations to prevent the spreading of false information, as we previously reported.
Still, with all of Twitter’s risks, many journalists acknowledge that the platform allows for more rapid investigation on the part of reporters—as long as they are sure to verify the facts.
The Guardian Special Projects Editor Paul Lewis previously told Editors Weblog that he uses Twitter as a “gateway for the contact” and as a means of directing his investigations, such as his reportage in the field during the London riots.
While news organizations may still be in the process of developing their Twitter rules and regulations for journalists, they now have one award-winning example—the Tuscaloosa News—to remind them of the quality of reporting social media can offer.