How one young Canadian reporter in Haiti helped turn Twitter into a storytelling tool

Twitter launched in 2006 and in less than a decade has almost 300 million users. Conceived as a social network to share information, it was gradually embraced by journalists and is now an essential tool for reporting and communication. In spite of its 140-character limit, it has also become a powerful platform for storytelling, used as a live blog or as a kind of inverted serial narrative, with each tweet a micro-scene or mini-chapter.

One of the pioneers of this use, I have argued, is a young reporter from the Toronto Star named Joanna Smith. A beat writer of Canadian government and politics, Smith was sent to Haiti to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake and early efforts to recover. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that disaster.

I have written about Smith’s groundbreaking work before. In my book The Glamour of Grammar, I wrote:

“Reporters and photographers rushed to Haiti in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the island, destroying many buildings, killing more than 230,000 people, and injuring many more. The narrative they produced from the rubble told a story of hardship that inspired a great outpouring of support for the Haitian people from across the globe. Of all those reports, I was especially taken with the series of short vignettes created on Twitter by Joanna Smith, a report for the Toronto Star. I found it remarkable how much she could convey in scenes or snapshots of 140 characters.”

What follows is a brief anthology of some of her more interesting and memorable tweets I harvested back then and saved. They are re-published here, but not in the order in which they appeared on Twitter:

  • Was in b-room getting dressed when heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.
  • Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.
  • Crowd watched him exhale blood.  Little girl in blue/white Dorothy dress pushed her way into mob to see.
  • Luckner Lewis asked to send msg 2 CDA: ‘We’re v glad 2 c u in #Haiti bc we need ur help. ‘Biggest prblm is the smelling,’ sez in 2 recorder.
  • Pile of garbage, some of it burnt, reeking on corner of Cana-Pevert. 2 chickens pecking it for spare crumbs.
  • 2 men carry little girl on cardboard stretcher, her arms around their necks, leg in newly set cast, yelping.
  • Man shouting into megaphone to clear road for garbage truck. Told it is on its way to mass burial site.  Following, but not sure.
  • Too dangerous to set up distribution point in notorious Cite Soleil slum now, but assessing.  Org gangs trying 2 profit, says UN.
  • Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Maman! Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.
  • Little boys playing with neat little cars constructed from juice bottles, caps.  Fill with rocks and pull with string. Fun.

There is something in Twitter that is structurally antagonistic to narrative storytelling, not unlike the classic inverted pyramid style of reportage.  Good narratives usually require chronology, time moving forward.  If you were following Smith in real time in 2010, this straight narrative was real and remarkably vivid, not a motion picture, but a kind of strobe-like sequential snapshot effect.

Most Twitter readers enter such live blogs in media res – in the middle of things – and either have to scroll back in time or just pick up from the entry point.  Author note: I’ve always wondered why Twitter has not yet provided a way to link on a Tweet in such a way that it turns a sequence of messages upside down so that you can trace the steps in chronological order.

On this fifth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, I contacted Smith via email with a series of questions.  In her sharp answers she reflects upon the power of Twitter as a reporting and storytelling tool.

Clark: You were the first reporter I noticed who used Twitter as a live blog for breaking news.  The effect was something like a serial narrative in miniature, like a movie made up from one snapshot after another. Where did you come up with the idea?

Smith: Twitter was still relatively new to journalism back then and I was one of the earlier enthusiasts at the Toronto Star. I was already pretty active on Twitter and so had planned to tweet while I was down there, but there was no real discussion or forethought beyond that.

I think it came about largely due to circumstance. It was taking much longer than expected to get into Haiti. I knew my editors were anxious for my first file from the country as soon as we (Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk and I) finally crossed the border from the Dominican Republic.

The trouble was that around that time, my mobile device could no longer access email on the Internet and it also wouldn’t let me call anyone to take my copy over the phone. I could send text messages, but it was around 4 a.m. and I did not have anyone to send them to. So, I decided to tweet my story out, line by line, using SMS text messages. My first one was directed at the Toronto Star’s Twitter account: “Anyone on the Web desk there? Going to attempt unconventional filing method: cut-and-paste via Twitter! Here we go.” I think it took me 15 tweets to get that story out.

Then I just kept going. There was so much happening all around me that I wanted to share, but it was virtually impossible to file traditional story updates to thestar.com throughout the day because we had no access to the Internet or electricity until we returned to our hotel at night.

I felt compelled to keep reporting, because if I wasn’t reporting, what on earth was I doing there? I wasn’t handing out jugs of water, or searching through debris for survivors or setting broken bones. I was there to tell stories, which felt like such a small thing, but that was my job and this was really the only way I could do it consistently.

Clark: It seems as if you were tweeting in real time from Haiti. Something dramatic would happen and you'd send out a tweet. Is that how it worked? Were you tweeting in the moment, or would you let some time pass between what you saw and what you reported?

Smith: I usually tweeted in the moment, just sharing my observations of what was happening in Port-au-Prince. It was like a digital notebook. For the first few days, when I was working exclusively with text messages, I couldn’t see the replies I was getting on Twitter. I didn’t even realize anyone was paying attention to what I was doing. Once I started receiving feedback, I learned that people were treating it as a way to join me as I traveled throughout the city and spoke to the people I met. Then I felt a responsibility to keep up that in-the-moment aspect of my tweets.

I think that is also when I started becoming more conscious of how I was crafting the tweets. I realized that people were reading them as stories – very, very short stories, but stories all the same – and so I put some more deliberate effort into achieving that effect.

Clark:  How did your tweets fit in with your other reporting and writing responsibilities?  What did the Toronto Star expect you to produce?

Smith: I tweeted throughout the day and then at night, after we returned to our hotel, which had a generator, I would file a story for the next day’s paper. I found my tweets – not just the content, but the style of writing – would often work their way into these stories. I think the 140-character limit really forced me to strip my writing of extraneous adjectives and adverbs, to use an active voice and to follow that basic writing adage: show, don’t tell. Once I sat down at my laptop and I had thousands of characters at my disposal, I really didn’t want or need them anymore.

Clark:  What kind of technology were you using for Twitter and your other reporting?  What were the technological challenges reporting from the site of such a terrible disaster?

Smith: I used a Blackberry for Twitter and a notepad, pen and digital audio recorder for the print/web stories. We used a satellite BGAN to access the Internet in order to file the rest. Since Lucas had the BGAN connected to his laptop to upload his photos, which took awhile, my access to the Internet was usually limited. This meant I had few opportunities to read what my competitors were filing or do any research beyond what I had seen with my own eyes. Other members of our team, both in Haiti and back in Ottawa and Toronto, were doing a great job adding historical and political context to our coverage, but I was just writing what I saw and heard out in the streets. And because we were pretty much incommunicado with our editors until close to deadline, we had complete control over our time and how we would approach the news that day. So, while the technological challenges could at times be frustrating, I also remember it as a really liberating experience.

Clark:  What did you learn in Haiti about the use of Twitter that you have been able to apply in your reporting on government and politics back in Canada?

Smith:  It’s hard, because political reporting can be so abstract. I’m writing about ideas and arguments and facts and figures more often than I am writing about what I see, so it can be difficult to tell stories in the same way. Still, whenever I am tweeting about something right in front of me, such as a particularly strong or interesting message in a speech, I aim to tell a short, complete story in a single tweet. It’s really tough, though, given the subject matter. I wonder how many of the new followers I gained while in Haiti abandoned me at the next committee meeting.

Here are some links to the work Joanna Smith did for the newspaper while in Haiti (as well as the amazing photographs by Lucas Oleniak, which will allow you to see some of the scenes Smith was tweeting about):

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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