Twitter Trumps Traditional Media in Discovery Hostage Crisis

twitterYesterday the media found itself in a breaking news situation when an armed man broke into the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland — Twitter users were able to break the news first. The story contained several alarming elements, including a large building filled with endangered employees, an unknown enemy and hostages. As The Washington Post pointed out, Twitter was the first place where not only words, but also telling images were released about the story’s various threads.

Twitter users outpaced formal reporters on the scene, since there were witnesses on location who could post updates as soon as they saw perpetrator James Lee. TwitPic boasted a cell phone picture of James Lee in the Discovery building yesterday afternoon as well as a picture of the SWAT team that reported for the emergency. Of course, the advantage of Twitter and related services like TwitPic is that you get thousands of individuals who have the ability to contribute small pieces of the story from their own perspective. For instance, this Twitpic image of the Discovery building yesterday shows an almost eerily quiet intersection — interesting to see in light of the extreme danger on the premises.

The basic Twitter set-up, with its famous 140 character messages, was also pivotal to yesterday’s news stream, as people either tweeted that they were safe or expressed fear and hope for Discovery affiliates they knew. The #Discovery hashtag created a group for related messages on the hostage situation:

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The actual crisis came to an end after the police shot James Lee, but Twitter has transcended its role as a news-breaker in this story; the site is now hosting conversations about the strange and scary event. Lee, who is now known to be an environmental terrorist of sorts, has inspired both serious and slightly comic tweets. Some of the more serious messages have aimed at providing helpful updates, like “building is open today, according to Discovery and police spokespeople. Police still investigating in lobby.”

Then there’s the person who tweeted yesterday, “The gunman at the Discovery Channel got taken down. I didn’t think there was anyone who could dislike Shark Week. Myth busted,” a message which got over 100 retweets.

The official Discovery account didn’t provide any updates during the emergency, but did offer this message late last night: “We are very relieved to report that everyone in our headquarters is unharmed & thank you for your support.”