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3 ways journalists use Twitter to beef up their investigations

September 26, 2019

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Journalists sometimes shy away from Twitter due to the deluge of information and the inability to filter out bullies or fake news. But if you know what you're looking for and how to find it, Twitter can be an invaluable tool. (Photo credit to pixabay)

Twitter has earned itself a bad reputation in the past few years due to the amount of bullying that happens everyday on it. However, Twitter is an essential tool for all journalists so it’s best to learn how to ignore the white noise on the platform and utilize its best functions.

Here are three basic ways all journalists can use Twitter to find sources, locate pictures and videos, and find location-based information.

1. Use Twitter to locate expert sources

The most obvious way to use Twitter for your article is for sources. You could reach a wide audience by tweeting out the type of exert you’re looking for and how they can contact you. Here’s an example:


If you already know who you want to contact, then you’re going to want to use the DMs feature, which provides direct access to experts across all industries. You can use the search tab to look up people or keywords to lead you to the right people. For example, if I’m looking for a source to talk to me about Apple’s stock performance, I can search for Apple’s stock ticker — “#AAPL” — and see which experts are weighing in on it.

When you DM a source, you can use these guidelines for your initial message, as laid out by First Draft News’ guide to approaching social media sources:

  1. Explain how you found them on Twitter. 
  2. Tell them your title and where you work. 
  3. Tell them about the story you’re working on. 
  4. Explain why you think they’re the right person to help you with your story. 
  5. Give them your work email or phone number for added credibility, and so they can reach out to you.

2. Use Twitter to find instant eyewitness content

Twitter is known for providing the most instantaneous eyewitness accounts from fun events, likeApple’s annual product event in September, but also from tragic events, like a school shooting. You may want to ask an eyewitness to describe the event to you, give you quotes, and provide photos.

If you want to tweet at or DM someone who just witnessed a traumatic event, you should always ask about their well-being first, First Draft News advises. Despite the tight deadlines all journalists are under for tragic breaking news events, you must use tact when contacting people who might still be in danger or, at the very least, are working through difficult emotions. And respect their wishes if they turn you down. 

It’s important to know that embedding a tweet that contains a picture or video is allowed. However, if you want to take the picture without embedding it, then you need permission from whoever took the photo, not from who posted it. On the other hand, any words tweeted out publicly aren’t copyrighted and can be included in an article.

Contacting people after a tragedy isn’t fun; it’s the job no one wants but your job is also to get information out to the public. The Guardian’s senior social editor described the process to The American Press Institute after observing journalists tweeting at people who witnessed the 2016 Brussels bombings.

“Asking to re-use pictures of tragic events is in some ways the digital equivalent of the old newsgathering ‘death knock.’ But now it is a death knock that everybody can listen in on.”

3. Use geocoding to find all tweets near an event

Twitter’s search bar is a great tool for journalists who enjoy geocoding, or using GPS coordinates of a physical address. This tool can help you find tweets, pictures, and videos from eyewitnesses. 

To use this feature for your story, you can use latlong.net to find the coordinates of the location of the event you’re covering and enter them into the Twitter search bar. The exact format you should use is “geocode: latitude, longitude, radius.” Here’s an example of what you would search if you wanted to find all tweets within 20 miles of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism.


Be sure to set your twitter feed to “latest” tweets to find the most recent ones.

And if I want to find all tweets that used the hashtag “#ASU” within 20 miles of the ASU campus, I would just add “#ASU” to the end like this:


As you can see, Twitter can be used for more than simply reading the public tweets of public figures. Twitter is understandably overwhelming to some people. But if you follow these tips, they will help you organize the users and tweets that are most important to your story into a more digestible format.


  • Natalie Walters

    Natalie is a money reporter at The Dallas Morning News. Previously she worked for Business Insider where her interest in business journalism began. She received her master's in investigative journalism from the Walter Cronkite School in Phoenix in 20...

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