How to approach sources on Twitter when covering tragedies like the Colorado shooting

Several journalists have been using Twitter to reach out to eyewitnesses and those who know victims of the Colorado theater shooting.

While it’s common for journalists to reach out to sources on Twitter, it's more challenging when sources have been affected by a tragedy. When you talk to people at the scene of a crime or disaster, or call them on the phone, you can show your sincerity by the look on your face or the tone of your voice. On Twitter, you can't do that -- and you're limited by 140 characters.

There are some ways, though, to tactfully contact sources on social media. Here are six related tips.

Be empathetic.

Understand that those who have lost loved ones and friends in a tragedy, or who have been eyewitnesses to one, are in a vulnerable position. Rather than just saying, “Can you call me or email me?” acknowledge how hard this must be for them.

Here’s a sample tweet: "I realize this must be a really hard time for you & I’d like to hear your story/account. Can you contact me at X?” Avoid phrases like "I know what you're going through." Such phrases can come off as disingenuous, and suggest that you know exactly what the person is going through.

Lay off the exclamation points.

I saw some reporters use exclamation points in their tweets when reaching out to sources who were at the theater. Including exclamation points can come across as insensitive in the aftermath of a tragedy. It's best to keep the tone of the tweet fairly neutral.

One punctuation mark that is good to use is the question mark. Rather than saying "Contact me at X," ask the source to contact you. A request in the form of a question seems less like a demand.

Make sure you’re following the people you reach out to.

Some sources may feel more comfortable sending journalists direct messages rather than calling them or responding publicly on Twitter. To make it easier on sources, follow them so they have this option.

It’s also important to make sure you’re following sources if you’ve asked them to send you a direct message (DM); they can’t DM you if you’re not following them.

Respect sources’ decision not to share information

If sources have made it clear they don’t want to talk, don’t keep pushing them. One way to respond would be to say, “I understand and respect your decision not to talk. If you change your mind, please let me know.” From there, you can try to reach out to other sources who might be more willing to talk.

Some people affected by the theater shooting have suggested they don't want to talk to the media. Adam Williams, who lost two friends in the Colorado shooting, tweeted: "Like 3 news stations wanna talk to me, Listen I just have friends that I love & would take a bullet for. thats all."

NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which has been tweeting about the shootings throughout the day, did a good job responding: “@AWWillie Thanks for considering. We know it's a lot to ask. Can't imagine.”

Follow up with people offline, if possible.

While Twitter’s a good place to find and contact sources, it’s best to try to follow up with sources by email, phone or in person. Doing so will make it easier to verify information and have deeper conversations that aren't limited to 140 characters.

If you talk with sources by phone or in person, you can get details that you won't get online -- the sound of a source’s wavering voice, for instance, or the tears in their eyes.

Denver Post Social Media/Engagement Editor Dan Petty has been tweeting about the shooting from Denver Post’s account all day and has been reminded of how difficult it is to reach out to sources in the midst of a tragedy. While he hasn’t reached out to many sources on Twitter for this particular story, he's had to do so in the past.

“A lot of the core of our reporting has really come from just the people we've met from the scene,” Perry said by phone. “Trying to show compassion in a 140 characters can be a challenge for sure. You can come across as unpatient and abrupt on Twitter because you don’t have the space to explain what you're trying to do. Twitter’s a great first way to contact people, but from there, try to take it offline; you can explain yourself a lot more.”

Moving forward, build it into your routine.

"Morning Edition" staffers have been using Twitter to reach out to sources for a while, and have made it a routine practice. By 5:30 a.m. ET this morning, the "Morning Edition" overnight staff had already identified eyewitnesses and reached out to them. Some of the sources the staff found on Twitter appeared on "Morning Edition."

Because "Morning Edition" has consistently reached out to sources on Twitter, staffers didn't hesitate to do so in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

" 'Morning Edition' has been using Twitter as a primary source of news for a long time in terms of finding eyewitnesses, so it's a pretty well-oiled machine," Tracy Wahl, senior supervising producer of "Morning Edition," said by phone. "Twitter, Storify and Facebook are places we go first to see what people are saying. It's very much a part of our newsgathering process."

Related: 7 tips for covering the Colorado theater shooting | How news spread of Colorado theater shooting | Sports journalist Jessica Ghawi dies in Aurora shooting | ABC News speculates theater shooter James Holmes linked to Tea Party | 6 ways journalists can cope when covering tragedies like the Colorado theater shooting | News University course: Journalists and Trauma

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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