This piece is part of API’s Research Review series, which highlights academic research that could be relevant and useful to the news industry. We also hope that this series will spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.

It may seem that this year has been one crisis after another — a global pandemic, a contentious presidential election, multiple cases of police brutality and dangerous forest fires in California. In times of uncertainty, the public turns to news organizations and journalists to stay informed; often taking to social media for real-time updates from reporters.

A new report published in the Newspaper Research Journal by Dr. Amber Hinsley, an assistant professor at Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Dr. Hyunmin Lee, an associate professor at Drexel University’s Department of Communication, examines how journalists use Twitter during crises and how audiences respond.

Objective reporting is highly “retweetable” — signaling the public’s hunger to share useful information during crisis events.

Hinsley and Lee studied the messages tweeted by local journalists in the week following four crises: two natural disasters — flooding in West Virginia and forest fires in Northern California; and two human-made crises — the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown.

Their main questions were: How do journalists cover different types of crises on Twitter? Which kinds of messages resonate the most with the public? And ultimately, what are the best practices for local journalists covering a crisis on Twitter?

While there were many findings from Hinsley and Lee’s comparative analysis, the following priorities stood out the most in terms of practical applications for journalists.

First priority

“Relay frequent, factual updates and even repeat information to ensure it does not get drowned out in the volume of tweets related to the crisis.”

Focus on the facts. Not only is this recommended by Hinsley and Lee, it is also echoed by a McKinsey & Company article advising organization leaders on crisis communication during COVID-19. The advisors at McKinsey say that, especially at the beginning of a crisis, the public needs instructing information — facts, not speculation, and straightforward instructions on how to keep themselves safe.

This is exactly what the journalists observed by Hinsley and Lee did. In each of the four crises, original and objective reporting made up the majority of content tweeted by journalists, which is in line with journalistic standards. The study also revealed that objective reporting was highly “retweetable” — signaling the public’s hunger to share useful information during crisis events.

Keep it simple and repeat it often. As we experienced first-hand in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the evolving nature of knowledge about a crisis situation can be anxiety-provoking for the public. The McKinsey article explains that especially during the initial days of a crisis, it is hard for the public to absorb all of the information they are given. The authors elaborate that fear and uncertainty can even lead to “cognitive freezing.” Therefore, journalists should keep the message simple and repeat it frequently to ensure that the information is received and acted upon as necessary.

Be wary of news fatigue. It is clear that members of the public want and need information about a crisis like COVID-19; however, it is also important to recognize that news fatigue is a real problem. Our research on COVID-related Facebook articles found that including a non-graphic image, compared to a graphic image such as a body-bag, made participants feel less anxious. The same was true for positive or solutions-oriented headlines in comparison to negative headlines.

Second priority

“Have staff dedicated to answering questions on social media to help alleviate concerns about the disaster.”

Build loyalty. While Hinsley and Lee’s analysis did not show a high number of likes or retweets for conversations between journalists and the public, their importance should not be discounted. Acting as a resource helps to establish long-term trust and loyalty between a local news organization and its community.

Tailor your coverage. Answering questions from the public can help journalists and news organizations ensure that they are creating content that addresses information needs. As the McKinsey article puts it, “Want to know what people need? Ask them.” This rings true for everyday reporting, as well. We partnered with API on research to find out what readers would like journalists to do differently. A few suggestions include explaining terminology and jargon and placing key takeaways in an easy-to-find box or at the top of the story.

Craft creative solutions. Answering the public’s questions can be done as simply or as creatively as you want. Fox10 News in Alabama’s Mobile and Baldwin Counties has compiled a gallery of video clips on its website of a reporter answering COVID-related questions from the public. The Chicago Department of Public Health has also utilized this tactic on Twitter, posting videos of its Commissioner of Public Health responding to tweets. That being said, answering questions from the public can be as simple as monitoring retweets and mentions for questions.

Third priority

Personal commentary from reporters about a crisis is best received when it focuses on community unity and healing. However, public sentiment on a topic may affect how reporters should approach the topic.

Be aware of public sentiment. Hinsley and Lee write that sharing personal opinions has benefits and risks. On one hand, sharing opinions with the public can help citizens get to know the reporter better. On the other hand, journalists run the risk of losing the public’s trust in their objectivity. Hinsley and Lee advise journalists to be aware of public sentiment in their community surrounding the event before tweeting an opinion.

Consider the type of crisis. A key finding from Hinsley and Lee’s research is that it is crucial to consider the type of crisis when planning how to interact with the public via Twitter. In their study, they found that reporters covering Orlando were more likely to tweet opinions — such as calls for unity — than reporters covering Ferguson. This could be due the fact that the details of the crisis in Orlando were more quickly settled and the narrative around the event similarly turned to calls for unity and community healing. Hinsley and Lee note that in this way the response in Orlando was more similar to the two natural disasters than to the protests in Ferguson. This shows that each crisis warrants its own unique response and communication plan.

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