How to find sources on Twitter: An exercise

Note: This guide was developed in September 2015. It uses the California wildfires as a subject, but you can substitute any news story. I recommend a breaking news story that has some central event in a place (i.e. a tornado instead of the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

In this exercise we’re going to use one of the California wildfires as a news story for finding information and sources on social media. You will learn how to create Twitter lists of relevant people to follow, keep eyes on multiple searches at once, find eyewitnesses and locate other Tweeters by their location.

Step 1 Get started

If you don’t already have an account, sign up for Twitter and use that same login information to get into TweetDeck, a Twitter-owned tool that makes it easy to have eyes on many different parts of the site at once. I would recommend bookmarking the link – I keep mine open in a browser tab all day and check in occasionally.

Step 2 Create a Twitter list of media/officials

You may want to create a list of people to keep tabs on – especially during breaking news – without following them.

For this exercise, let’s create a Twitter list of people who might have relevant information about an ongoing California wildfire of your choice (map of 2016 fires here). Some of the accounts I go to first are the local newspapers, TV stations, police/fire/EMS and city, county and state officials.

Think of the relevant players for this story and look up a couple of them. Now start a list where you can follow all of their collective tweets in one place.

  • On Twitter: On the user’s profile page, click on the gear icon. Select “Add or remove from lists…” Click the “Create a list” button. Name it (you don’t need to add a description). Click save. createlist
  • In TweetDeck: Click on the user’s name and then the person icon. Select “Add or remove from lists…” Click the “Create a list” button. Name it (you don’t need to add a description). Click save.
  • When adding others to the list, just click the name or icon and select the one you want to add them to.

Once you’ve got the basics, start clicking through to the people your original list is retweeting. Keep following from Twitter account to Twitter account, adding good people along the way. This base will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.


  • You can prevent someone from knowing they’re on a list by making it private BUT you can’t share that list with anyone.
  • You can subscribe to lists that other people have made. For example, someone else has already gone to the trouble of making lists of NPR people and member station accounts. Click subscribe to follow.
  • I keep all of my lists, even long after a news event has lost relevance. This has come in handy at least once, when commuter trains collided in Connecticut and I still had a big local media list from the Newtown shooting.

Step 3 Keep track of all your lists and searches in TweetDeck

TweetDeck makes it very easy to monitor multiple lists/feeds at the same time by adding different “columns” for each thing. You can add columns for: all the people you follow, mentions (ex. who’s tweeting at you or an account, like @npratc), lists you’ve made, search terms, trending hashtags, favorited tweets, direct messages and more.

Let’s create a column for the Twitter list you started.

  1. In TweetDeck, click the “+” symbol on the left of the screen.
  2. Click “Lists” and then find and select the list you created. Click “add column”

(Tip: You can change the location and settings of a column in your TweetDeck by clicking on the icon in its top right corner. It will pop open a settings box. The arrows in the bottom will move the column left and right.)

Now let’s create another column for a general search term related to the wildfire. What’s a word, phrase or hashtag you think people might be using to talk about it?

  1. In TweetDeck, click the “+ Add column” symbol on the left of the screen.
  2. Click “Search” and then type your term into the search field.
  3. Hit “Enter” and it will automatically add the column.

Create a couple of these columns and compare them. Do some seem more valuable than others? Are some just updating too quickly? Add and delete other search columns as needed.

(Tip: If you’ve created a column for a search term like “Oklahoma tornado,” and are overwhelmed with the rate of updates, you could slow it down by changing it to only show tweets that are being retweeted a lot, those with photos/videos and/or exclude retweets.)

Step 4 – Find Tweeters by their location

After you’ve got a solid base, you can look people up using other terms, including the location of a Tweeter who has geotagging turned on. Note that not everyone has done this (in fact, a majority have this feature disabled).

For this exercise, let’s look up people who are tweeting within 20 miles of the center of the wildfire.

  1. In Google Maps, navigate to the area you want to search around. You can also look up an address or cross streets.
  2. Right click on the site and select “What’s here?”
  3. Copy and paste the longitude/latitude data that shows at the bottom of the screen.  Example: (38.831689, -122.678084)


  1. In Tweetdeck, use this search string: “geocode:longitude,latitude,radius” you want to search 

    Example: “geocode:38.831689,-122.678084,20mi” (NOTE: you must delete the space after the first comma and make sure there are no spaces between anything else).


Try playing with the search radius for a wildfire, you might want to keep it pretty big since they’re generally spread out over many miles. But if you’re covering an explosion at a downtown building, keep it small. You can also use km.

I tried this technique a couple of days after the Boston Marathon bombing (using the finish line as my geographic point) and picked up tweets from the nearby Red Sox game where one of the bombing victims was throwing out the first pitch.


Step 5 – Find Tweeters by how they talk about themselves

In addition to using the methods described above, you can also be smart about the keywords in your search string. Daniel Victor of The New York Times wrote about one great technique, where he searches for “I,” “me” and “my” because social media is inherently personal and that’s how people talk on it.

For this exercise, let’s look for people who might be affected (or have family affected) by the fire. How might they talk about it?

Search for things like:






  1. In TweetDeck, click the “+” symbol on the left of the screen.
  2. Click “Search” and then type your term into the search field.
  3. Hit “Enter” and it will automatically add the column. 

Like before, try a bunch of these and see what works. You can also apply this type of searching to other social sites, including Reddit and Instagram.

Step 6 – Verify!

With great power and access to information comes great responsibility in verification. It should be obvious, but you have to be very careful when pulling information or sources from social media. It’s so easy to get it wrong. People lie and exaggerate online all the time – and journalists fall for it all the time, too.

Some basic tips:

  • Look at a user’s profile. Are they brand new to the site? Do they have other connections/friends? If not, you might be skeptical that they are who they say they are.
  • Get a user’s real name and try to vet them with traditional resources, like Nexis.
  • See that amazing image “from the scene”? Run it through Google’s reverse image search. It may be old and, potentially, entirely unrelated.

Guidance from NPR’s Ethics Handbook:

One key is to be transparent about what we’re doing. We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns — sometimes “knocking down” rumors circulating on the Web is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?

Other Resources

This post was updated in February 2019 by Amy Morgan, Senior Engagement Editor for Digital Content at NPR.

Serri Graslie was the Senior Digital Strategist on the NPR Training team.