Social media during terrorist attacks: How useful is it for journalists?

The role that social media plays in the process of gathering, and sharing the news of a terrorist attack, is bigger than it looks. How useful is social media for journalists covering terrorism?

Nicolas Magand
Sep 22, 2016 · 7 min read

On Tuesday 19 September, L’Obervatoire de la déontologie de l’information (ODI) organised a roundtable on the topic of media coverage of the 14 July attacks in Nice, France. Media representatives, from local newspapers to international media, recounted their experiences during the terrorist attacks and the day after.

The ‘Use of social media during terrorist attacks’ roundtable: Denis Carreaux, editorial director, Nice-Matin; Anne Kerloc’h, editor-in-chief, 20 Minutes; Grégoire Lemarchand, social media director, AFP; Nicolas Vanderbiest, Louvain Catholic University; Sylvain Desjardins, correspondant, Radio Canada.

Denis Carreaux, editorial director of Nice-Matin, a local newspaper, kicked things off, giving some insights on how to work unprepared in such a situation.

“We were not prepared for the Nice attacks. In 15 days, we had 150 pages produced on this, without counting the web content. This was unprecedented,” Carreaux said.

“When we learned the news that night, lots of images and explicit descriptions started coming through social media minutes after the attacks happened. That level of proximity was unusual for us.”

Nicolas Vanderbiest, crisis and influence in social media expert from Louvain Catholic University, pointed out the amount of tweets during this attack, which was not very large compared to other events on Twitter. “Actually there were not that many tweets; it is unusual for journalists, but not a big volume of informations per say. In total, we only had three rumours of hostage situations, with a readable amount of original tweets. It is important to use filters to get rid of the noise and be more efficient.”

“When the Nice-Matin website went down, we started publishing natively on Facebook.”

Cutting through the noise and verifying information

“We had to go back to journalism fundamentals to avoid the emotion, even if it is hard to get over it. We had to work with two main sources of information: our reporters on the scene, and social networks. We had to sift through what was true and what was false,” said Carreaux. At one point, people were calling the Nice-Matin to report a hostage situation. Nice-Matin chose not to publish these claims. Carreaux explained than sometimes honest witnesses can report false stories.

“People were scared, some found refuge in a restaurant, doors got locked, and a lot of police showed up. That’s why some people believed there was a hostage situation.”

Another thing to keep in mind when using social media as a source of information is the lack of representation.

“The most active groups on social networks are usually very engaged, but they don’t represent the general population. In France, for instance, the far-right is usually very vocal on social media.” added Vanderbiest.

“Social media is a source like the others, it needs verification.”

During the first minutes of the attack, social networks were quickly flooded with videos, photos, etc. Many media outlets got some facts wrong, notably pointing to a Facebook profile thought to be the truck driver’s (it was not). “Nice-Matin’s brand helped us to tell the population what were the facts and what were not; we had a responsibility to do so,” said Carreaux.

Vanderbiest added: “In those situations, a lot of people tend to ask: ‘Is it true?’ People and media have a strong relationship. People ask media first if a report is true or not. There are not asking the authorities, they ask journalists directly through social media. It means people trust journalists in those situations.”

Cover of Nice-Matin the morning after the attacks

On the editorial choices that had to be made in an emotional time for local journalists, the newspaper chose to not publish any graphic video. Carreaux explained: “Our most graphic picture was on the front page of the printed paper the next day; it was important to show the horrors, but respectfully.”

For Radio Canada, the correspondant Sylvain Desjardins added: “We immediately send two persons, one from Brussels and another one from Paris. A lot of content was produced on social networks. They used it, but as a potential source of information, but not as an established verified information.” He cautioned: “Always use the same journalism rules no matter the source, use the conditional language if needed. At first, terrible images were interpreted as useful pieces of information to give a better sense of the reality: It was an emergency reflex. We then got rid of those images. We used our judgement, even if it was later.”

“For us, social networks were great tools, but only when we used them based on our journalistic principles. We used them for instant publishing, as a live source of information, verification, but also for human interactions — helping families searching for their loved ones, or finding witnesses. Taking a step back was our biggest lesson. I believe our behaviour has changed since July on how to cover stories.” added Carreaux.

What to show, what not to show

“Before social networks, AFP was everywhere, often one of the first ones to provide pictures for stories. This is not true anymore.”

Those were the opening words from Grégoire Lemarchand, social media director, Agence France Presse (AFP), the news agency which today employs more than 1400 journalists. He added: “Social networks are first, whatever you do. We used to work on social networks only if we couldn’t deploy reporters. Now we start the work on the story scene and on social networks at the same time.”

Since AFP does not blur images, editors must often make choices around non-graphic images, and “they also have to provide editorial value to the readers. Experience can help determine the limit of what is OK to publish or not,” said Lemarchand. On using social media as a source, he adds: “We have to be fast, verify the information, and beyond verification, we also have to contact the person to ask for permission to use the content, confirm authorship, etc. Then what to do when you see horrible pics or videos? There is no rule, each element deserves its own reflection. Every picture is different.”

When asked about the key lessons at AFP after the Nice attack, Lemarchand said: “We want to be faster, without falling for fake stories. We try to teach verification processes to our journalists. Field reporters are used to be the witnesses of tough situations, but when the field is social media, our editors can be exposed to rough images too. They also need to be prepared.” Lemarchand then added:

“We [journalists] have a new role. We are not the ones breaking the news anymore. We are the ones able to verify information, to explain it. That’s the role of journalists nowadays.”


“We [20 Minutes, a national newspaper and the most active French media organisation on social networks] started as a newspaper distributed in the subway, we were always about distributing news wherever people spend time. Today, that time is spent on social media. Today, a third of our audience comes from social media,” said Anne Kerloc’h, 20 Minutes editor-in-chief.

When asked to share her experience as a reporter on 14 July in Nice she said: “Our first priority was safety; the alert system was our responsibility: Share authorities recommendations, essential information that mattered to public safety.” She added: “Our second priority was to clean the planned posts we had prepared for social media. Getting rid of other messages. Sadly we had some practice before.”

20 Minutes Facebook post, with more than 700 comments

At 20 Minutes, the use of social media is crucial, especially while covering an event like the 14 July attack in Nice. The comments section on Facebook was used to answer questions from users, most of them to know about the level of truth in a rumour they just heard. “Our Facebook page has more than two million fans and receives more than 20 thousand comments per day. During the 13 November attacks in Paris last year, we received a majority of mourning comments, expressing solidarity, etc. For Nice it was different: It was the third attack in a year, kids and entire families were killed, comment were more angrier, we had to do intense work on moderation [20 Minutes journalists are helped by a moderation company],” said Kerloc’h.

“When comments happen on Facebook we cannot close them like we are able to on our website.”

When asked about the experience at 20 Minutes and how the Nice attacks changed the way journalists work, Kerloc’h said: “We managed to stay calm in a very intense situation. In those situations, we are in sort of an always-learning mode. With time, our sensibilities are evolving and every story is different. Every day is a new day to ask new questions.”

Key social media lessons during a terrorist attack:

  • Promoting safety should be the number one priority
  • Verify information before sharing it, use social media as a source but go back to fundamentals of journalism
  • Use editorial judgment to make a decision on what to show and share
  • Answer questions, interact with the readers, explain the information
  • Clean the list of planned posts on other topics
  • Use filters on Twitter to cut through the noise, take a step back if needed

Jane McDonnell — Executive Director, ONA

“This year, as audience appetite for news on social media platforms explodes, we’ve seen Facebook’s media role expand to everything from live, fast-breaking news events to politics and culture.” (Marketwired, 23 August 2016)

Kayvon Beykpour—CEO, Periscope

“Twitter and Periscope take you where other cameras don’t — letting you experience breaking news through the eyes of those living it.” (Venturebeat, 22 June 2016)

Quotes brought to you by Storyzy

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide…

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Nicolas Magand

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Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.