Twitter and the Bangalore bomb blasts: Part I – The eyewitness account and online reporting

A series of bomb blasts was detonated in Bangalore last Friday, killing two people and injuring several others. Mukund Mohan, a technology entrepreneur, who was working nearby, decided he would provide updates on what was happening using Twitter, a micro-blogging tool that enables people to publish short, 140-character, updates online.

Prompted by some interesting comments, this is the first post in a series looking at how reporting on Twitter compares with more traditional methods of journalism. Click on the numerals for parts II, III, and IV.

As he tracked the blasts in Bangalore, The Director of Digital Insights for Edelman, Steve Rubel, wrote, ‘the media have the Bangalore story but Twitter was first’. Time and again Twitter is proving that it is the place to be to monitor breaking news. The first tweet about the bomb blasts appeared on the web at 8.48am GMT, minutes before other media picked them up. But the tool is also proving that it can provide exceptionally quick access to eyewitness accounts and online reportage.

Mukund Mohan was at a friend’s house on M.G. Road in Bangalore when he received a phone call from his cousin. His cousin told him that there had been some blasts close to the office where he was working the previous day. Rather than stay away, Mohan decided to travel roughly two miles to the scene. He’s still not entirely sure why he took this course of action, but said he was ‘more curious than anything’. He used Twitter to post updates about the blasts on the web. Other Twitterers quickly identified Mohan as the man to follow because of the quality of the information he was providing and his proximity to the unravelling news event. The ‘facts’ of the blasts evolved during the day and Mohan’s updates reflect the uncertainty of what is happening in any breaking news situation. The number of dead and injured, and the number and locations of the bombings were regularly being amended. Some might argue that it’s pointless trying to use Mohan’s updates to report the event given that they were likely to change, but as new facts came to light, official police sources also gave out contradictory information. This was regularly reported by the mainstream media. In a reflective post on his blog Mohan discusses five difficulties of being an ‘on-the-scene’ reporter:

1. Separating fact from fiction & opinion 2. Determining what to report from all the information available or what’s “newsworthy” 3. Understanding who to listen to 4. Putting the story together so it makes sense 5. Giving information that’s timely versus repeating it as it comes.

Mohan describes how he tried to overcome different versions of events from the police; work out who were the best people to speak to; understand what the main storyline was; and handle information that he felt he could not verify.

Mohan was nevertheless reporting the information he had to hand as best as he could and he says his experience has given him a newfound respect for the job of television reporters. Was Mohan’s reporting any different from an anchor speaking live to a reporter on a 24-news channel (apart from having the advantage of not being stuck in front of a video camera)? Were his attempts to report information any less valid than other reporters who were trying to make sense of events? Perhaps training or experience might have helped Mohan, but just how much would it have done so?

Let’s not forget that rolling coverage of the London bombings in July 2005 on the BBC and Sky initially reported a power failure on the underground rather than a series of suicide attacks.

Coming Tomorrow: I will consider the issue of verifying the reliability of material available on Twitter. Photo: Kindly provided by Mukund Mohan himself.