Breaking News in the Age of Twitter

When the shocking news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, along with many others, including one child, were shot at a public event in Tucson, Twitter exploded. And rightfully so, considering the gravity of the story.

I’m not an expert on politics, (or on anything else really), so I can’t, in fact, speak to the many variables at play in this story. I have, however, been a live witness to several, big news cycles as they have broken out on Twitter. As such, I have begun to notice some patterns.

Let’s take a high-level look at how breaking news travels through Twitter during its first few hours of life.

Local Source

I can only assume that with every breaking news story, the first tweets (or Twitpics) come from someone close to the actual event. Sometimes, we can trace the source or sources, but not always. Those initial tweets are usually lost within the tidal wave that follows.


I don’t completely understand how news wires work today, but I believe they are still an important tool for news agencies. I also hope that people still say things like, ”Hey boss, this just came in over the wire…”  because that still sounds cool.


From those newswires, the Twitter account @breakingnews is typically pretty quick at publishing the latest breaking story. In today’s case, however, they were not faster than the CNN Breaking news Twitter account.

Retweet Hysteria

People love to retweet big stories. Some Twitter users must feel as though it’s their duty to help spread the message. If you follow 100+ people, it’s pretty easy for the retweeting to quickly dominate your stream.

Trending Topic

Twitter’s trending topic algorithm can be very quick at times. In the case of major news, it’s safe to assume that the volume quickly exceeds any threshold for trends inclusion. In the case of Congresswoman Gifford, it appeared as a trending topic within mere minutes.

Bloggers Go Nuts

Now it’s the bloggers’ time to shine. Unlike news organizations, bloggers can move quickly to publish and comment on breaking news. Most are also quick to show their various bias and get emotionally caught up in the story. They still rely on the big news organizations, though, to confirm details.

Misinformation Point

When you have so many people converging on a story, there is bound to be some misinformation conveyed. Twitter allows this misinformation to travel much faster and broader than it would have previously. Today, for instance, Giffords was alive one minute, then dead, then alive again and in surgery. Corrections and updates come in waves for hours.

Big News Entry Point

Typically, 5-10 minutes after a story breaks on Twitter, the larger news organizations start to publish. Sometimes it’s as little as a sentence, while other times there’s more detail.  Even with their large resources and extensive due diligence, they can still get details wrong during the frenzy.

Time for LOLCats

After a few hours, things begin to  return to normal. Your Twitter stream still shows lots of activity around the breaking news, but a few lolcats also begin to emerge, signaling a return to Internet normalcy.

The Flush

At this point, the story has gone mainstream and is well-known. Twitter users will now move on to flushing out every detail possible that is related to the story. This usually consists of news updates and, of course, the social media profiles of people associated with the event. This can go on for days depending on the duration of the news cycle.

What other patterns have you seen with breaking news events on Twitter? Let us know in the comments.

Sean Percival

Sean Percival is an American author, investor and entrepreneur.