News Stories Evolve in the Public Sphere
In the digital age, stories of crisis evolve in the public forum and communicators must be always at-the-ready. Even in the most remote regions of the Sahara desert where the average citizen has no Twitter account, conversations on social media shape how information is framed for the public. On October 28, news of the deaths of a group of Nigerian migrants reached Twitter, as a few individuals shared links to the story on Fox Headline News. Fox writers claimed that 35 migrants died of dehydration after being stranded in the Sahara desert. The article hinted that these individuals were involved in human trafficking, and mentioned that the final death toll was not yet available.
The Evolution of a News Story
After this initial report, Twitter was quiet about the tragedy until 8pm on October 30, when @Y7News released an Agence France-Presse article indicating that 87 bodies had been found. This article was much more detailed, indicating that the bodies of 7 men, 32 women, and 48 children had been found just a few kilometers away from the border of Algeria, which was their destination.
Over the next several hours, people began sharing this @Y7News article on Twitter. Additionally, other news and humanitarian organizations shared similar reports. By the morning of October 31, Twitter activity about the Niger disaster was coming in so fast that I could hardly keep up. Engaged citizens worldwide were sharing the story with their followers. Two specific frames emerged in their 140-character messages: (a) indignation about human trafficking; or (b) a sense of horror and awe at such deadly desperation to seek a better life. Rumors of racist journalism and possible Al Qaeda involvement also emerged (@scottslute, @bbcfessy, @ALuckxA).
As time progressed, the news articles became more detailed. Just before 8:00am on Thursday, October 31, the CBC embedded a map in the Twitter feed, and the death toll rose from 87 to 92. Other details about the dead surfaced: their bodies were badly decomposed, indicating they died some weeks ago; and jackals had eaten some of them. As news of the burials was reported, journalists revised their online stories to include interviews with humanitarian workers, the final death toll (92), and survivor accounts of the journey.
Implications for Crisis Communication Practitioners
As a witness to the Twitter traffic, I was struck by the speculation about racism in reporting, and the number of revisions to news articles, as journalists attempted to sort the story out with limited information from possibly questionable sources. Secondly, even after news of the burials was all over Twitter, some news sources still reported the death toll at 87, while others were at 92. As a bystander, this was confusing: it seemed like the number of dead bodies should be something everyone could agree upon. When a Twitter user shared the BBC interview with a 14 year-old survivor, who had buried her mother and two sisters herself as they traveled the desert in search of water, the discrepancy in death toll made more sense. The published death tolls were of bodies that could be counted.
Sometimes, the legitimacy we seek in the United States – confirmation from several different sources, official news releases from the government or interviews with spokespeople, quantifiable evidence – are impossibilities.
In the digital age, the need for speedy news – for being the first to report an event – has a cost.
Journalists publish as soon as information is available. Nearly all stories associated with this incident were officially revised (and had time stamps indicating the last revision) several times. The sources I trusted most in this exercise were those that did not claim certainty, but instead used phrases such as “at this time, we estimate,” or “sources speculate that …” For crisis communicators, this makes pre-crisis planning essential. Just as journalists have boilerplate articles with preliminary information to which they add detail as stories develop, governments, aid organizations, and corporations must do the same if they wish to be included the conversation. Waiting until you can quantify some aspect of the crisis may mean that your story goes unheard. Twitter brings the story development that once occurred in a newsroom into the public eye, which can lead to rumors and false accusations.
Representing your organization in a crisis as it occurs, and monitoring social media mentions are essential to maintaining credibility.
Is your organization prepared to handle a crisis? Do you use boiler plate press releases? Are there best practices for crisis or disaster communication planning?