The one word journalists should add to Twitter searches that you probably haven’t considered

I’m a senior staff editor at The New York Times, reporting for our Express Team. Before that I was a staff editor on our social media desk for two years.

Please forgive the gimmicky headline. I promise the word is coming, and if I gave it away now you wouldn’t be able to play along.

Earlier this year, Michael Paulson, a New York Times reporter who covered religion, emailed me with an idea and a question. There had been a rising number of reports of conflicts on airplanes in which Hasidic Jewish men were seeking to avoid being seated next to women other than their wives. He was aware of incidents on four flights between the U.S. and Israel, and was wondering if we could use Twitter to find passengers on those flights, as well as other flights on which similar conflicts might have taken place.

Yep, we found them. On April 10, his story appeared on Page One in print. Online it was hugely popular, gathering almost 3,000 comments, more than 4,000 tweets and a rollicking Facebook discussion.

I was able to quickly find 13 possible sources for Michael, and he reached out to all of them; most were happy to talk. All five passengers quoted in the story were found with Twitter searches. Here’s how we did it.

(To play along at home, try to guess which search terms we used for each source to find him or her.)

Source 1

Francesca Hogi, 40, had settled into her aisle seat for the flight from New York to London when the man assigned to the adjoining window seat arrived and refused to sit down. He said his religion prevented him from sitting beside a woman who was not his wife. Irritated but eager to get underway, she eventually agreed to move.

Source 2

Laura Heywood, 42, had a similar experience while traveling from San Diego to London via New York. She was in a middle seat — her husband had the aisle — when the man with the window seat in the same row asked if the couple would switch positions. Ms. Heywood, offended by the notion that her sex made her an unacceptable seatmate, refused.

“I wasn’t rude, but I found the reason to be sexist, so I was direct,” she said.

Source 3

Jeremy Newberger, 41, a documentary filmmaker who witnessed such an episode on a Delta flight from New York to Israel, was among several Jewish passengers who were offended.

“I grew up Conservative, and I’m sympathetic to Orthodox Jews,” he said. “But this Hasid came on, looking very uncomfortable, and wouldn’t even talk to the woman, and there was five to eight minutes of ‘What’s going to happen?’ before the woman acquiesced and said, ‘I’ll move.’ It felt like he was being a yutz,” Mr. Newberger added, using a Yiddish word for fool.

Source 4

Some passengers are sympathetic. Hamilton Morris, 27, a journalist from Brooklyn, said he agreed to give up his seat on a flight from Los Angeles to Newark via Chicago because it seemed like the considerate thing to do.

“There was a Hasidic Jew sitting across the aisle, between two women, and a stewardess approached me and quietly asked if I would be willing to exchange seats because the Hasidic Jew was uncomfortable sitting between two women,” he said. “I was fine with that. Everyone was trying to be accommodating because on airplanes everyone is anxious about offending anyone for religious reasons.”

Source 5

Other passengers, like Andrew Roffe, 31, a writer based in Los Angeles, said he and a friend wound up debating the ethics of the situation after Mr. Roffe described his experience on a United Airlines flight to Chicago. When passengers started to board, he said, an ultra-Orthodox man stood in the aisle, refusing to move and delaying the departure for 15 to 20 minutes until another passenger volunteered to switch seats.

“My buddy who is Orthodox was saying this is a traditional thing — he doesn’t want to be tempted when his wife wasn’t there. And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ This was just some woman flying to work or home and minding her own business.”

Using the right search terms

Journalists are trained to think in keywords. If tasked with finding these sources, most would probably start with words like Hasidic, flight.

But that search is horribly noisy to the point of uselessness. “2-month-old Hasidic boy dies after brother drops him down flight of stairs.” “Hasidic man dies mid flight from Florida to New York.”

Let’s try some more terms. Some people probably don’t know the word Hasidic, so they might just say Jew. Or maybe they’d go with Orthodox. You probably want Jewish in there.

Flight was good. Let’s add plane.

These are the words our SEO-addled brains come up with. But for successful needle-in-a-haystack-finding, you need to shake your brain out of that mindset and add a new kind of keyword.

You probably skipped right over the most important word used by the five sources above. It’s everyone’s favorite word, and one you should add to any Twitter search that’s seeking personal experiences:

Me.

(And its close cousin “my.”)

Most people relating a personal experience — aka, good sources — will use it. Most people observing from afar — aka, useless sources — won’t.

Let’s look again at those five sources, and this time pay attention to the words they used that enabled us to find them. There’s another word variation they all have in common.

Source 1

Hasidic

flight

my, me

sit

Source 2

Hasidic

flight

me

sit, seat

Source 3

Jew

flight

my

seat

Source 4

Hasidic, Jew

plane

me

seats

Source 5

Orthodox, Jew

flight

my

sit

They all used me/my. They also all used sit/seat/seats, which could have been another route in.

Here’s the main takeaway: Imagine what your perfect source would tweet, or what you yourself would tweet in that situation, and search for the words that would probably be in it. And be sure you’re not limiting that to the SEO keywords.

My other favorite word for Twitter searches is on. Next time there’s a train crash, try searching for “my on train.” You’ll find a lot of “My sister/uncle/friend is on that train!” Whoever’s tweeting that could lead you to the witness.

Hostage situation? “omg my sister/uncle/friend works there.” Or “omg I know someone who works there.”

Wanna contact someone in the building? If it happened in your building, what’s the first thing you’d tweet when you got out? “I’m safe.” “I’m OK.” “I’m okay.”

Once you’ve figured out the right terms, you could use Twitter’s advanced search to get exactly what you want. You could use search operators and add a column in TweetDeck so you’re notified every time a tweet hits your sweet spot.

The implications of this are pretty dang cool. With better searching we have better sourcing and better stories. In some cases, it allows us to find sources who would otherwise be impossible to find, and tell stories that couldn’t otherwise be told at all.

For all the focus on traffic generation and conversation, we ought to appreciate that social media also represents the deepest source pool and one of the greatest reporting tools ever given to journalists. Just gotta know how to wield it.

(Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @bydanielvictor.)

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