Clutha: how helicopter disaster unfolded on social media

Clutha, in all its tragedy, hurt and questions was also one of the first such major disasters in Scotland ever to be played out in real time on social media.

Hundreds then thousands of Tweets showered photos, videos, Vines, statements, links and more into view.

For a weekend when news crews and reporters other than Sunday staff were generally stood down, and on that one many soaked up in festive parties, social media became the main port of call for information.

At my former employer, STV, the local websites that had blazed a trail for award winning community journalism in Scotland had only just been replaced by a new product, mobile phone apps.

It had barely launched two weeks when Clutha happened. It was untested. We were still finding our feet with the tech, let alone the content.

On shift that night were a trusted freelance journalist called Siobhan McFadyen and a then rookie by the name of Douglas Barrie.

Within moments of the accident, they had checked the facts of what was happening and began rolling news coverage of what was unfolding in the city via STV Glasgow and the other sites.

Douglas came of age as a reporter, among the first on the scene and working straight through the weekend. Siobhan, an absolute pro and class act who I’d worked with before, knew exactly what had to be done in terms of breaking the story online and ringing the bell for the rest of us to get back to HQ or head to the various points needed.

The weight they carried for the station at the start of this event was immense. They did so coolly, calmly an without any sense of drama. If it doesn’t sound too glib, I couldn’t have been prouder of them or more grateful to those others who drifted into work, unasked like Laura Piper, untested like Nicola Love, dogged like David Bateman, from other areas of the business like Jonathan Rennie, to help keep users, readers and viewers informed.

It was also the first time other than the Olympics that I remembered local, news and broadcast truly working as one journalistic machine on such a scale. Interaction was everything.

Their efforts pale by comparison to that of the firefighters, paramedics, police and others of course. But everyone knew the importance of what they were doing, of the hurt Glasgow and Scotland was feeling.

And in journalistic terms, this was a massive learning experience for all. Some of us had dealt with disaster stories before .. but this was being played out live online.

Information has to be verified, permissions for images and video sought out.

Some key players were white listed – such as the rescue services, government and staff.  We came to arrangements to quickly help them push out urgent information, opening a direct line to the desk editors to ensure speed, format and above all, accuracy.

Vital for our team was ensuring everyone respected the enormity of the situation and that real people were involved, that their families could be reading too. At key points on the clock we rounded up information, our job to try and help inform what we knew.

Some were surprised too that we shared content from the BBC, radio stations, newspapers like the Evening Times or from Sky News. But if someone with the gravitas, sources and professionalism of say James Matthews put out information on his Twitter account, why wouldn’t you? This was about facts, not STV egos.

Around 3am we knew the likely death toll. But we waited.  We waited like others in hope, we waited for respect, we waited because we had to be sure. In a world of Tweets where being first is everything, we decided we would rather be right.

On a night like Clutha, it didn’t matter who was first, just being right. The only thing that really mattered was those hurt, trapped and dead in the rubble.

People slate journalism and social media in particular for many valid reasons. But that tragic night a year ago, for Scottish news at least, it came into its own.

It perhaps helped change the face of coverage and the way it interacted with the audience, emergency services and authorities here forever.

A year on, none of this maybe matters.

But I pulled together the video from this link in the hope it might give food for thought to not just the next generation of journalists coming through the likes of Glasgow Caledonian, West of Scotland and other university journalism courses, but established media houses still grappling with the idea of social media.

To my mind it demonstrates how all those news gatherers were able to contribute the content from such a fast paced, life changing event. 

But the confidence in its presentation came from having a dedicated team plugged into its potential, specialists if you will, when all too often social and indeed digital journalism is regarded by media organisations here as a bolt on.

As Clutha showed, it’s now much, much more than that.

[Update: This article was edited on 12/04/16 to remove a link and final paragraph of attribution to the STV Glasgow site which has since been merged into a new catch-all site]

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Categories: Media, Media philosophy & trends, Social Media

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