By Amber Hinsley & Hyunmin Lee
Nearly three years have passed since news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo. broke on Twitter. Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by a white police officer in August 2014, sparking weeks of protests and generating a national discourse on policing and race.
Ferguson is 12 miles from Saint Louis University, where we both worked when Brown was killed. As we scoured Twitter for information on this death that divided our community, we saw patterns in how different groups used Twitter as a crisis communication tool and how certain messages seemed to resonate more with the public. To explore what we were observing, we launched a Twitter research project that aimed to help journalists and activists be more effective in their message strategies and provide more useful information to the public during times of crises.
Our analysis found that St. Louis-based journalists and activists had similar Twitter practices during this tragedy that attracted national news coverage and the attention of the White House. Both local journalists and activists mostly posted original tweets with hashtags, rather than relying on retweeting other’s messages. Within hours of Brown’s death, select hashtags dominated and set the agenda for how the story would trend on social media. In fact, #Ferguson came to represent many of the issues related to the death of the black 18-year-old, including fractured race relations, police brutality and uneven municipal enforcement in the small towns of northern St. Louis County, including Ferguson.
In the week after Brown’s death, journalists relied on their professional norm of objective reporting with a majority of tweets focused on a “just the facts” approach. Activists, too, produced many tweets that were factual accounts of what was happening. Although most of the activists were not trained in community organizing, they quickly recognized that being a continual source of information enabled them to shape the narrative by drawing attention to the protests and police officers wearing gas masks and sitting atop armored vehicles. They then could use persuasive message strategies such as emotional appeals and engaging in conversations to encourage others to join their efforts.
Further analysis found the public appeared to distinguish between retweeting and favoriting/liking tweets from activists and journalists. (Twitter switched from favorites to likes in late 2015.) Information-sharing tweets from activists and journalists were likely to get retweeted and favorited, but some differences emerged:
- Although the numbers were small, broadcast journalists tweeted their opinions more often than did their print counterparts, and when they did, those opinions were likely to be favorited by the public. This finding may support previous research that found the public views journalists as “truth-tellers” when they occasionally breach objectivity to offer personal observations during crises.
- Activists’ tweets about organizing marches and rallies were likely to get favorited but not retweeted, suggesting that the public used favoriting to indicate support for the activists’ messages but saw retweeting as a separate function.
- Although activists used Twitter to issue calls to action for people to attend meetings and participate in civic engagement activities, these messages were not likely to be favorited or retweeted. This calls into question whether Twitter is an effective platform for recruiting others to engage in online/offline activity in this type of crisis.
Two years after Ferguson, we analyzed journalists’ tweeting patterns in another crisis situation—this time a deadly mass shooting in Orlando, Florida when a 29-year-old gunman shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Because the shooting occurred at a popular gay nightclub by an American-born gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS, authorities classified the incident as both a hate crime and terrorist attack. While Orlando journalists used fewer hashtags than journalists covering the Ferguson crisis, journalists who tweeted about the Orlando nightclub shooting included more links and photos.
Orlando journalists also were more likely to voice opinions in their tweets. Unlike Ferguson, the facts of the Orlando shooting were not disputed and did not contribute to preexisting divisions in the region. Journalists who tweeted support for the LGBTQ community and promoted unity in Orlando did not challenge the status quo in the same way that similar messages from journalists would have done in Ferguson.
In comparing the crises in Ferguson and Orlando, some differences were notable in how the public chose to retweet and like the journalists’ tweets:
- In addition to Orlando journalists’ greater propensity to tweet their opinions related to the crisis, those tweets also were more likely to be retweeted and liked by the public.
- Objective tweets from journalists in Ferguson were likely to be retweeted and favorited, but in Orlando, the objective tweets were only likely to be retweeted (not liked). It is possible that the public differentiates between Twitter’s former practice of favoriting and the current one of liking tweets—and they did not want to imply they like news about the worst mass shooting in U.S. history to date.
Although these findings are specific to two very different tragedies, there is a common lesson for journalists. It is not enough for journalists to use social media as a reporting tool. When tragedies such as Ferguson and Orlando reach the level of crisis for a community and the country, journalists and news organizations should consider both the type of crisis and the type of information needed by the public to feel informed and safe.
Amber Hinsley, a journalism professor in the Department of Communication at Saint Louis University, researches media management, news production and online journalism. Prior to entering academia, Hinsley was a reporter and editor at community sections of the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at @amberhinsley or firstname.lastname@example.org
Hyunmin “Min” Lee is a public relations professor in the Department of Communication at Drexel University. Her research focuses on social media strategies for relationship and reputation management as well as health communication. She can be reached at @MinlovesPR or email@example.com