Turning Twitter into a Journalistic Tool

Now that, as many of us who teach journalism have noted, Twitter is slowly gaining acceptance as a media tool for our students, what exactly are we to teach them about using it?

It’s an interesting question. I’ve had to pick up a lot of tools and techniques on the fly during my years of teaching, but I don’t think that I’ve ever — until now — had to teach a tool that was evolving right before our eyes.

So here’s what I’m doing as I teach Twitter to 21 students enrolled this term in Beginning Newswriting and Reporting. I’d love to hear what you’re doing as well:

First is that, unlike Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, blogging — most of my students haven’t been Twitter users before they enter my classroom. I expect that to change over time as more students adopt the innovation (professors can carp about the need to adopt this or that, but you really need to get a critical mass of their peers to adopt before most will willingly go along).

So I begin by explaining what Twitter is. And I note that, as I see it, Twitter has four primary journalistic uses:

  • Distribution: Journalists use Twitter to break news of interest to their audiences. (Example from @brianstelter of the New York Times: “Keith Olbermann announces that tonight is his last night on MSNBC.”
  • Promotion: Journalists use Twitter to promote their work in old and new media. (Example from @CharlesMBlow, a columnist with the New York Times: “Read tomorrow’s column, ‘Obama’s Gun Play,’ tonight and let me know what you think. http://tinyurl.com/6dmnv5c Also, be sure see the chart.”
  • Curation: Journalists use Twitter to point to other sources of interest on the Internet: (Example from British digital journalist and educator @paulbradshaw: “Rupert Murdoch’s #iPad digital newspaper raises many questionshttp://gu.com/p/2mhn8/ip#stats#paywalls
  • Sourcing: Journalists use Twitter to generate sources for stories. (Example from @steffen4 [that’d be me]: “Now blogging about tips for teaching Twitter in journalism. What are your ideas?”

The concepts above are, for the most part, the easy part. My students get these pretty easily. (Of the concepts, curation is a little difficult for them to grasp at first, I solve that by pointing out that when they go to a museum someone had to decide what they would see while there. That’s the job of the curator.)

Understanding the cast-in-stone limit of 140 characters is pretty easy. (Someone, someday, is going to figure out a way to teach leads by having students write them on Twitter.)

But there’s a craft in writing Twitter posts, just as there would be in any kind of writing. Once we get beyond the anti-140-character snobbery of some — another journalism educator indignantly asked me a few months why I would want to do that, meaning teach Twitter — we realize that it’s a form of journalism that can be informative even within the limits of the tool.

Here’s what I’m seeing as the most common problems exhibited by my journalism students in using Twitter as a journalistic tool:

  • They frequently don’t understand what they’re supposed to be tweeting about. I make clear in class that, while they’re free to tweet on anything they like with their accounts, they’ll only get credit for tweets that concern on-campus news or news of concern to us as future journalists. The first weeks of the course are full of tweets about the Golden Globes, the NFL playoffs and the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But, they’re chagrined to find, they’re not getting credit for those. Teaching takeaway: Be clear on what you want students tweeting, and stick to your guns.
  • Their tweets often are too vague to earn credit. A typical student’s first-week tweet: “#SimpsonCollege has some exciting news this week: http://is.gd/yucktweet.” Great, if all you want to do is get something in under 140 words. But it’s too vague to get me to bite on the link. The tweet should be rewritten as: “#SimpsonCollege launches a new public policy center. http://is.gd/goodtweet” Teaching takeaway: Demonstrate vague tweets and show your students how to add specificity to them within the limits of the tool. And, again, stick to your guns in evaluating those tweets that don’t meet this standard.
  • Tweets often have pronouns without referents. God bless my students: They learn to condense and condense, often to the point of eliminating the subject of their tweets. “He can’t be serious in thinking that News Corporation can successfully erect a paywall. http://is.gd/badtweet”, one wrote last term. Even though you can’t get “Rupert Murdoch” in that tweet in the 140-character limit, the tweet still must be recast to include a referent, even if the referent becomes the common shortform “Rupe.” Then the writer has a chance at engaging the reader. Teaching takeaway: Show them, don’t tell them.
  • Students have to pick up a sense of professionalism in their Twitter work. As do most schools, we talk about Twitter as a key tool our students have in branding themselves. But more than a few have taken usernames such as @thisguylikestoparty and used avatars that don’t project the best image of themselves. (One was hesitant about getting too much into Twitter because of all the “creeps” who were following her. I politely theorized that her cleavage-enhancing beach photo might be one reason for the creepiness of some of her followers.) Teaching takeaway: If your students don’t yet have Twitter, have them set up accounts in class on the first day of the term. If they already have a Twitter account that’s used primarily for social purposes, have them consider setting up an account for their academic and professional needs.

The good news is that this seems to be getting results in my classroom: Students have a rocky first few weeks on Twitter, but they do get the hang of it. And they learn what I think is the most important lesson we can teach them about using social media as a journalistic tool: It’s not simply for self indulgence but really to connect with audiences and give them information that it’s valuable for them to know.

The students who move on out of the course and into student- and professional-media positions are embracing this tool. That, to me, is the best test of teaching them the power of the tweet.

Here’s a video from BeatBlogging.org that also covers some journalistic uses of Twitter.

1 Comment

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