How journalism educators can teach students to live-tweet campus events

Live tweeting is now a standard tool many journalists and news agencies use for breaking news. The Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling and the Freeh report on the Penn State scandal are recent examples in which Twitter was the first source of news, minute by minute.

My journalism students in the Diederich College of Communication regularly live tweet campus events at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The events have ranged from a presidential inauguration to guest lectures to NCAA basketball games. Each assignment includes a Storify component, that is, a mandate to curate related social media.

The students take to the task easy enough. They recognize it helps them focus on their writing; extend their journalism near and far; capture moments not normally found in news articles; and inform and engage alumni, students and others unable to attend the events.

My students and I are equally proud when our collective tweeting causes an event to trend regionally on Twitter. It’s happened for three occasions so far: the inauguration of the Rev. Scott Pilarz, S.J., as Marquette’s president in September, a lecture by Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Enberg in February, and our college’s annual alumni awards ceremony in April.

From my perspective, having students live tweet is much better than merely having them write 500-word stories that only their instructor will read. Live tweets enable students to interact with their audience — and can act as notes for whatever stories they do end up writing.

Here are four tips on how to teach your students how to live tweet campus events.

First and foremost, focus on the fundamentals.

This might surprise some educators: Not every student is on Twitter. I require everyone in my class to have an account with a respectable handle based on one’s given name. I also have them read two spot-on Poynter.org articles by Mallary Tenore: “6 Ways Twitter Has Made Me a Better Writer” and “The 5 Types of Stories That Make Good Storifys.”

This will surprise few educators: Students will mostly tweet youthful banter unless told otherwise. Class-related tweets should include full sentences, have attribution when needed — and abide by AP style and correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. Ban your students from using long or uncomplimentary hashtags such as #aretheyserious or #icouldrantbutiwont. Each tweet must include a class hashtag (for example, #JOUR1550 or #loweclass) and the event’s main hashtag. Be sure to keep the hashtags short, given the 140 characters limit per tweet.

Good reporters research each assignment in advance. The same goes for live tweeting. Students should know before arriving all related hashtags and who among the event’s organizers and key participants have Twitter handles. (Twitter’s basic and advanced search functions are good places to start.) Using these things in tweets will help draw retweets and new followers.

Use class time to show students how it’s done.

One class period is sufficient for introducing students to live tweeting. But how can they practice without causing a ruckus on Twitter? Just use YouTube and Microsoft Word. First, show them this 10-minute video of Earl Spencer’s amazing eulogy for his sister, Princess Diana. Then, tell them to open a new document on a computer and, as the video plays again, type everything they hear, just as if writing a story for class or the campus newspaper.

Next, have a student at one end of the room recite the first sentence or two captured. Each classmate follows suit — one or two sentences at a time — until reaching the room’s other end. Repeat the process until the video’s last words are relayed. Teach that while it’s unlikely they will all report the same things, no one should miss any key moments, and the more attributed quotes the better. Stress that their offerings should be relevant, accurate, interesting and timely.

Now for the good part. Have students select the first sentence or two with their cursor, and then go to Tools, then Word Count, in the Word menu above, and note the number of characters with spaces. Of course, 140 is the magic number. Then affirm #Earl #Spencer #eulogy #funeral #princess, etc., as hashtags.

Now have them create as many tweets as possible within the same document — editing as necessary — with the event hashtag, #Diana, and class hashtag in each one. Repeat the student-to-student routine, making sure each new tweet moves the story along.

Make the first experience worthwhile & set goals moving forward.

Many live-tweeting opportunities — large and small — exist on any college campus. Take the class for its first foray en masse to a journalism-related lecture by a distinguished guest speaker. The students will appreciate doing it together. Also, you’ll get to see their mistakes and correct immediately.

After the first class assignment, I require each student to live tweet a campus event once before midterms and then another before finals; both must have an accompanying Storify. I must approve each choice beforehand, mostly to ensure there’s a journalistic value.

Students from my class live tweeting the inauguration of the Rev. Scott Pilarz as Marquette’s president in September. Photo by Victor Jacobo.

Each student should send at least 12 to 16 tweets per assignment; many will tweet more. This bears repeating: Poorly written tweets (AP style and spelling matter!) and those without the class and event hashtags don’t count.

Again, stress that basic reporting habits apply to live tweeting. That includes arriving extra early for a good seat. Draft related fun-fact tweets in advance. Tweeting during lulls is encouraged. So, too, is tweeting photos of speakers, the audience, signage, protesters, etc. Writing quotes and statements on paper first is OK to help avoid mistakes. Keeping pace is ideal. But, remember, focus on quality, not quantity.

Continue encouraging your students.

This effort will have its haters. Some will ask why the students are using their cell phones or laptops. “Are they texting? Are they on Facebook?” Some will fear that tweeting diminishes their intended experience. I teach: “Welcome to journalism. Many times someone won’t want you there. Be respectful. Be mindful of what you tweet. Be sure to tell a good story. Have fun.”

By live tweeting campus events, you and your students will develop fans. Your institution’s public relations office will tout them. Student groups will email you in hopes that their events will get play on Twitter. My dean helped ensure my classes tweeted from the awards ceremony. Also, my students are live tweeting and using Storify at their summer internships.

Finally, beseech your students to make sure their mobile devices are fully charged beforehand. In the real world, editors and followers will accept no excuses for missing the story.

For more about live tweeting campus events, see my related blog posts at http://www.herblowe.com/live-tweeting.html and or email me at herbert.lowe@marquette.edu.

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