Exeter bomb blast: a case study in online coverage and social media

It terms of the unexpected, getting several tweets and rss notifications of a bomb blast of my home city of Exeter had to be pretty high on the list of things I never quite thought I’d see [1]. As, until just under eight months ago, it was also my reporting patch, it also gave the opportunity to follow the story from a variety of sources, analyse coverage, and see what, if any opportunities had been taken or missed online, and with social media.

It also made me a teeny bit jealous and nostalgic that I wasn’t down there reporting.

Breaking news: the sources

While the story was continually breaking I was hitting Twitter, Digg, technorati, Google and the local media’s online site, chiefly the Express and Echo and Gemini Radio. Anything that follows certainly isn’t a criticism of them (in terms of Gemini, my old employer, they sounded fantastic on-air from the hour I listened in on, and given how few people there were in the newsroom, they were stretched as hell. I’ve no idea on the echo, but I’d imagine they were also juggling plenty of balls with not enough hands).

How web 2.0 savvy were the journalists on the case? I have no idea, but through a cursory glance of various social media sites I dug up a few bits and pieces, which would have been a good addition to any story, and maybe worth storing for another angle or another good voice to the story.

Digg didn’t yield anything [2] while delicious didn’t immediately have anything either and technorati only really came alive between leaving work at six and logging on again at 10pm, although a lot of the posts were from the usual anti-Muslim brigade. It did, however, yield this lovely and rather sweet piece of user-generated content:

“I contacted Gemini radio to tell them about the Exeter City Council webcam, and they put the link on their website!”

The tool that really proved it’s worth, though, was Twitter. Not only was this the first place I heard about the story itself, but there were rich pickings, with a quick search within Twitter for ‘Exeter’ bringing several users Tweeting about their experiences, as well as a couple of interesting blog posts. John Hood, who was one of them, also noted Twitter’s worth:

“This afternoon, Twitter, yet again, proved its intrinsic value with regards ‘breaking news’, when a nail bomb exploded at Exeter’s Princesshay Shopping Centre! I had, literally, only driven by Princesshay minutes prior to the explosion. Wondering if Peter Lacey, an eye witness interviewed by the BBC at Princesshay, is the same Peter I knew at primary school? Small world if it is!”

And in more proof, if any were needed, of the high proportion of the social media enthusiasts on Twitter, the search also uncovered The Daily Ack’s brief unfolding timeline of his personal experiences, plus another piece of wood for the traditional media coffin [3] notes:

“I’d expect that over the next few hours, just like the 2005 blasts, I’ll also be getting most of my news from non-mainstream sources. However unlike the 2005 bombing this, unless it turns out that the initial information is very wrong, is a local story and that means that, unlike a story of national interest, any follow up by the main stream press will be sporadic at best. They’ll probably not just be the best news source, they might be the only news source available.”

But, perhaps surprisingly (or not – I wasn’t), the first place I looked was the best. Exeter City’s fan forum, Exeweb, has a very strong Exeter-based community and, to my mind, it was inevitable that somebody would start a thread about it.

Many of the posters worked nearby the city centre, and some were close to the main scene – the thread actually turned out to be the best way to follow the news, with any unsubstantianed rumours quickly quashed and the news hitting Exeweb before anywhere else, even Twitter.

Now, before you think I spent the whole afternoon scouring the web for sources, the above all took me just half an hour to set up. Once I’d found the right areas to look in, the rest was done with Google and Technorati alerts and refreshing the other pages when I got a spare moment. That, to me, is the exciting part. The web has moved journalism on to such a point that with just 30 minutes I felt as informed as if I’d been living in Exeter.

The traditional media, online

Now, putting aside social media for a moment and onto the local media, specifically the Express and Echo [4], the fascinating area was to see firstly how their website covered the event, and secondly, what opportunities could have been used to link into social media and enhance the user experience.

There was some good stuff too – regular half hour updates, and a gallery that was uploaded pretty quickly and continually added to. The video that was posted later tied all the ends together nicely and was one of the most informative pieces available anywhere on the web all day [5].

On a basic level, very good. As a user, I have a reason to visit their site throughout the day. However, there’s aspects that are far from perfect. The bitty nature of the articles is quite frustrating. Also, every piece is finished with a plug for tomorrow’s echo, where the full story will appear.

Now, as a regular user of the paper’s online service to keep up to date with events back home, I’m willing to bet tomorrow will see what the Echo do every day – a brief summary, followed by a quick line about full story in the paper, before the full piece is posted up a day later. As somebody who can’t get hold of the paper on that day, it drives me nuts [6] and is really poor practice, plus puts them 24 hours behind when it comes to social bookmarking, and that will lose them hits in the long term.

It’s easy to understand why they do this – to maximise print sales – but is a very Web 1.0 way of doing things and with no sharing buttons, it’s very frustrating to ‘do’ anything with the articles. It’s still possible to hold back the really good stuff for the paper while filling the the essentials in a good, non-bitty article online as it breaks. If they could open up and make all their articles available on the day, it would help web goodwill towards them no end.

Going Web 2.0 and combining traditional and new media

Now, let’s bring together a few strands from both here. The Echo’s online coverage was ok to good in places but could have enhanced the user experience far more. The most obvious idea here would be rather than posting the bitty updates, would be to have a reporter liveblogging and bringing all the strands together. The Guardian are particularly good at this, and its an easy and coherent read, and this could apply equally the Gemini’s site.

The same reporter would be able to scour the web for any decent links, blogs, or Tweets and link to them as appropriate, plus there would be the chance to work from any tip-offs that might arise in the comments [6]. The question will always arise here at what level do you credit blogs as sources, and how reliable are they, which is something Robin Hamman has written about many times [7].

It’s a toughie, but blogs do add and enhance, and are part of the liveblogging experience. Best practice would suggest that if, as a journalist, the information isn’t immediately verifiable, but worth linking too, then flag up this fact in the liveblog before you link. That should cover it all. Perhaps another option would be to save it to delicious and publish all the saved delicious links on the blog at the end of the day.

Local papers are usually the first, and best place, to turn to when there’s an event on their patch that’s of national interest, due to good local knowledge and contacts, and the really savvy local media (papers and radio) would already have a Twitter feed in place – it’s at times like this that Twitter really can release its potential (and generate more traffic for your site).

It goes without saying that any good reporter should be setting up technorati and Google alerts relevant to a story like this, while also checking for information on Facebook, and the more Web 2.0 of them will have thoughts about putting the videos on YouTube and working the links and tags on Digg and delicious, even if it means bookmarking the paper’s own liveblog as a start.

How much the newspaper or radio’s site wants to share with users, or keep for themselves, is another matter, but both visible or just used by the journalist, they all combine to enhance the user experience, without a great deal of effort from the person sat in front of the keyboard.


The more events like this occur, the more opportunities and tools your average reader will have to hunt down information. Twitter is becoming more useful as a journalistic tool by the day, and once again showed its worth here.

What this also shows, is that any traditional media that ignores these social media tools and neglects the user experience throughout breaking news, risks losing them elsewhere, possibly for good. After all, if there up to date information on forums and blogs that’s seemingly no less reliable than the mainstream media, why bother? But if the paper or radio in question starts bringing together these tools on their website – ah, now that’s a different story.

One place they could do a lot worse than take a lead from is the Birmingham Post (even if they do have one of my least favourite journalist-only words – slammed- in their front page headline), who’ve done some excellent work across the site (thanks, in no small part, I suspect, to Joanna Geary). I’d wager if the same event happened in Birmingham, the Post’s online coverage would exceed my suggestions.

The Echo haven’t done a bad job online, that’s for sure – with a little bit of tweaking they could really take their Web 1.5 site to Web 2.0. The same goes for Gemini, who do offer extras, but (and this is largely because all GCap sites are the same and not great for anything unique to one specific station) really need to add in lots more Web 2.0 features (hell, why not do a special news podcast?).

But the encouraging thing is they’re getting there. Even is social media is still hurtling forward at a faster pace.

UPDATE: And proof, if any were needed, about the importance of good tagging and titling. This post alone has seen nearly 200% more hits and counting than an average post on this blog. And this blog is now also on the front page of Google if you search for ‘Exeter bomb’. Now how many media organisations would love to see their coverage listed on the first set of results on Google?

UPDATE 2: With wonderful gallows humour the British do so well, there’s now a Facebook Group, I survived the 22/05/08 Exeter bombing.

[1] And even so, the general consensus from friends and online sources seems to be one nutter who’d probably have done more damage with a baseball bat than a bomb, and doesn’t seem to have affected people that much. But that’s by the by.

[2] And I’m still not really au fait with getting the best out of Digg so if anybody has found anything that I’ve missed feel free to tell me I’m rubbish.

[3] Ok, I’m not a total subscriber to the “I come not to praise newspapers but bury them” crowd but it does show that users are getting more savvy and much of traditional media needs to shake up PDQ.

[4] I’m going to put Gemini very much to one side here – partly because they would have been working towards regular on-air updates, and also I know what their online CMS is like – an absolute inflexible dog that doesn’t offer a great deal of scope for experimentation, and that’s really not their fault. There’s plenty of extra audio for you to get their teeth into though, which is good, and they’re updating regularly (in between me starting this post and writing this. I can guess which poor sod it is who won’t be sleeping tonight, and will buy him a pint when I’m next in Exeter).

[5] And I’ll even put aside my usual quibbles about editing and other TV techniques here as it was a very decent video and, given the time they had to do it in, well put together – certainly better in content than a lot of the sensationalist crap on the national bulletins.

[6] The Echo do have a note on their site that comments are disabled due to abuse, which is fair enough if they’re stretched – comment moderation takes up a bit of time and in events like this you do get a fair share of nutters leaving comments. I’ve no idea what caused them to switch it off though, as it was already disabled by the time I logged onto their site.

[7] If he’s reading this, Robin, I’d love to know your thoughts.


15 Responses to “Exeter bomb blast: a case study in online coverage and social media”

  1. 1 Rob May 23, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Wouldn’t be surprised about a forum providing the best info. Possibly the best source of info on the London bombings was, of all places, the Football 365 forum, a huge collaborative piece of work that moved much further and faster than traditional media. The advantage of such things is that you can have posts of the type ‘My girlfriend’s mum works for the police and she said…’ that you just couldn’t put on TV or radio for confidentiality reasons. People then have enough of a brain to sort the good nuggets of information from the rest. I’ve read the Exeweb thread and although it is good the injunctions to stick to the facts and not speculate have probably led to some self-censorship that makes it less good that it would otherwise have been – although, pleasingly, most people seemed to just ignore them.

    Was also quite interesting to track how the BBC covered it. In the early afternoon it was quite far down the web page but the most read and emailed story. It then slipped down quite substantially before becoming the top story later in the evening. It seems that there are two things that bumped it up the order: the connection with radical Islam and the predator motif, whereby we have some masterminds in Plymouth ‘preying on’ (police statement words) vulnerable individuals. This has led to quite an interesting conflict in some media between portraying the bomber as, on the one hand, evil and callous and, on the other, a vulnerable, naive victim. It will be interesting to see which strand wins out, but the fact remains that the story only took on such importance when it fit two pre-existing pet narratives.

    Isolated individuals, meanwhile, may have their own prejudices – some of them are obviously anti-Muslim, in a far less coded way than the Daily Mail and Sky News – but they will largely attempt to fit the coverage to the facts on the ground, rather than skewing the coverage to fit a series of frames.

    Any comment that comes from the traditional media will be likely to call for more police, more anti-terrorism spending, and possibly certain reductions in civil liberties. This seems to miss the point entirely. Counter-terrorism spending has increased significantly since September 11th, which is a good thing, but only part of the story. What’s needed is an attempt to prevent radicalism that is as strong, or stronger, than the current efforts to disrupt and nullify existing threats. Extreme Islamist literature, largely from Saudi Arabia, is easy to get hold of; the UK’s image in the Muslim world is low and falling; mental health spending is nowhere near adequate to provide help to those who need it. More anti-terrorism police isn’t going to help any of that. A far better use of resources would be to plug the gap in mental health spending and support the culture industry to allow it to spread worldwide a generally positive, more grounded image of the UK to counter this propaganda. Also we could work with more moderate Muslim figures to try to counter extreme literature and spread tolerance. None of these, however, are vote winners and the government’s continued attempts to push through 42 day detention don’t bode well.

  2. 2 Charlie Beckett May 23, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    that’s a truly great post. Cut and paste it into an essay and I think you’ve passed your online journalism masters somewhere.
    YOu obviously know a lot more about online journalism than I do which is why I’d appreciate your views on my book SuperMedia – you can get free extracts at the Polis website:
    Charlie Beckett

  3. 3 Nigel Barlow May 24, 2008 at 7:40 am

    A very good post Gary.

    I think that your conclusions sum up the position of the use of new media techniques very well.

  4. 4 Ben Ayers May 27, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    A brilliant and enlightening blog post. Any budding (or otherwise) journalist should read this. And then they should forward it to their editor and ask for a web enabled phone / PDA.

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May 2008

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