Twitter has become an important social media tool for reporters. But how do you determine when a conversation warrants a story? And how do we verify the information is accurate?
Those were the questions Ken Alltucker of The Arizona Republic faced when he learned of a Twitter conversation between Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini and Arijit Guha, a local student who’d lost his insurance coverage during his battle with cancer. Ken says a reliable source alerted him to the Twitter back-and-forth after 5 p.m. on Friday.
Ken had one thing working in his favor: He’d been planning to write about Guha’s unconventional efforts to raise money to pay his medical bills. “I had been in contact with his caregivers at the Arizona Cancer Center, so I knew Guha’s cancer diagnosis and fundraising effort were legit,” Ken says.
From there, things were more challenging. He couldn’t reach Guha to verify what happened. Aetna’s regional PR representative in Texas didn’t return a call that night.
“Although I could not reach Guha or Bertolini on Friday evening, I felt the story was solid,” he says. “My trusted source had been in touch with Guha that evening and had confirmed what happened on Twitter was real.”
He also saw a retweet from Aetna’s PR staff saying the company had “solved” Guha’s problem. To verify the Twitter account actually belonged to Aetna, he followed a Twitter link that led to the company’s social media policy on its website.
He reviewed old tweets from both Bertolini and Aetna to confirm the accounts were real. “I also did a background check Friday night on Bertolini and his public comments on the nuances of health reform,” Ken says. “His public comments to other media were consistent with the tenor of his tweets.”
Like most of us, Ken says he’s more comfortable with traditional reporting methods like using documents and data, and interviewing sources in person, over the phone or sometimes via e-mail. “But given the unique nature of this story and tight deadline pressures … I felt we did an adequate job of verifying material on a social-media website and properly attributing the material,” he says.