Twitter kicked butt

Peter Dykstra, a former executive producer of CNN’s Science, Tech and Weather Unit and currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, puts some perspective around the coverage of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s environmental disaster at the Kingston Steam Plant near Knoxville.

His take: Twitter, whose messages are limited to 140 characters, kicked butt on the national media in covering the story.

Maybe it was the Christmas holidays, but the major U.S. media largely took a pass on the story. The New York Times didn’t show up for 48 hours. National TV news outlets mostly ignored it, despite the appalling images of a community spending Christmas blanketed in a gray, soupy, toxic mess.

Twitter was an odd exception. The social networking site was abuzz with info from activists, journalists, scientists, and links to reports from regional media treating the story like the major environmental disaster it was.

With a 140-character limit on individual posts, Twitter looks like a poor conduit for in-depth information. But you can fit just about any URL in 140 characters. Twitter also has a simple, unique feature called a hashtag. Type in a key word preceded by the “#” in Twitter’s search function, and you’ll be taken to every Tweet that includes the phrase — in this case, “#coalash.”

Amy Gahran is a Boulder, CO media consultant who specializes in both online and environmental journalism. “I saw a big story that I thought was interesting, and found almost nothing in the national media,” she told me. Within a day or two, Gahran had spearheaded a hashtag effort to bring all available info on the spill to a national audience of Twitterers. Other contributors included RoaneViews, a news and info website for the community near the Kingston power plant; the Knoxville News-Sentinel and Nashville Tennessean, two state dailies that have covered the story aggressively; and Jeffrey Levy, an EPA Web Information Officer, volunteered Agency maps and stats on the facility.

My take: The coverage on Twittere that Gahran instigated played a role in drawing the national media into story and continues to keep up the interest level beyond the affected region.

It’s also interesting that unlike the well-publicized @comcastcares effort, TVA, the nation’s largest power company and a federal corporation with a small army of media and public relations people, appears to have no social media strategy to help deal with a news crisis.

After a slow start overall, the agency now has a large ground effort ongoing to deal with questions from the public, the media, elected officials and activitists, and is putting out its own flood of information.

TVA replaced its normal Web home page with on information on the spill and you can find photo galleries, videos, fact sheets, statements and lots of other info. But you’re not seeing the agency, unlike the EPA, use Twitter, or social media sites or other Web 2.0 tools to get out information.

I’m suspecting TVA and large corporations will put some focus on that when they assess how they handled this crisis.