10 tips for teaching journalists how to effectively use social media

When I first wrote about Twitter in September 2007, I got emails from journalists who said I was highlighting a tool that would never have journalistic application.

A lot has changed since then.

There’s now a greater willingness to embrace Twitter and other social media tools — or to at least see their potential. As more tools emerge, we need to be open to teaching others how to use them and how to integrate them into our workflow.

I’ve put together some tips for teaching social media based on teaching I’ve done here at Poynter. While the tips are mostly geared toward journalism educators, journalists who are coaching their colleagues may also find them useful.

1. Do some homework ahead of time.
Teaching social media can be especially challenging when you’re presenting to a group of journalists with varying levels of social media experience. There are those who use social media effectively on a daily basis, those who don’t use it at all, and a whole lot of people in between. Asking questions prior to your session can help you determine which category participants fall into: beginner, intermediate or advanced. I typically ask three main questions via email:

  • About how often do you use social media for your reporting?
  • Which social media tools do you use the most?
  • Is there a particular tool you want to learn more about?

These questions will give you a better sense of how to frame your session.

2. Know where you’ll be teaching.
I once agreed to teach a session, only to find out that the room I was teaching in didn’t have Internet access. That taught me to inquire about my teaching space sooner than later. If you haven’t already been in the room where you’ll be teaching, make sure you’ll have what you need ahead of time — a wireless password, a projector screen, etc. If possible, request a room with computers that participants can use during the session.

3. Learn the backstory.
When preparing examples, try to talk to the people involved so you can find out the backstory and share it. Like the way a reporter is using Pinterest? Ask her about it and find out what she’s learned. Increasingly, I’ve found that my reporting informs my teaching. When I write stories about journalists’ use of social media, I often come away with real-world examples that both readers and those I teach can learn from. When teaching journalists how to use Storify, for instance, I typically refer to the examples and lessons learned in this piece I wrote about five types of stories that are good for Storify.

4. Create & share handouts.
Print handouts for people who want a tangible takeaway from your session. I typically distribute handouts at the end of sessions, but some people prefer to hand them out earlier so participants can take notes on them. Either way is fine. Handouts that show people why they should be using social media and/or how they could be using it better are especially helpful. You might, for instance, consider sharing this piece about the best times of day to post links to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

5. Answer the “Why should I care? question.
This is an important question to answer early on so that you can hold the attention of people who are skeptical of social media. I typically start off by talking about how, when I first wrote about Twitter, The New York Times had about 400 followers. Now, it has more than 5 million. I use this example to illustrate just how much Twitter has grown and to show the potential we have as journalists to reach that audience. I’ve also shared research showing that social media’s role as a driver of news is growing. It helps to keep the “why should I care?” question in mind throughout your session.

6. Make at least part of the session hands-on.
Some people learn best by doing. If you are teaching people how to use Twitter’s Advanced Search, for instance, turn it into a hands-on exercise by asking them to do their own Advanced Search. One of the drawbacks to having participants sit in front of a computer, of course, is that they’re more apt to get distracted. Letting them know ahead of time that they’ll get to use the computers later on in the session can help.

7.  Don’t just answer questions; ask them.
As you walk through the examples you’ve provided, ask people to share their own experiences using social media. This will help break up the session and keep people engaged. It may also deepen your understanding of the group’s experience with social media. If you’re including a hands-on activity, ask people to talk about how it went. If you don’t know the answer to a question that comes up, don’t pretend you do. Ask the audience for input. You may be surprised by how much knowledge there is in a room.

8. Include a primer on social media verification.
Along with showing how journalists have used social media effectively, it helps to highlight times when they haven’t. Often, I’ll share one or two instances when news organizations have been duped and then talk about how journalists can do a better job verifying accounts posted on social media — especially during breaking news situations. Here are some resources to read ahead of time and share:

9. Conclude by asking people to set a goal for themselves. Maybe it’s tweeting once a day. Maybe it’s drafting a Facebook strategy for your newsroom. Maybe it’s helping a colleague set up a Pinterest account. Hand out index cards and ask participants to write down their goals. By prompting people to work toward a goal, you can encourage their use of social media beyond the classroom.

10. Become a resource.
Before you end your session, give participants your email address and Twitter handle so they can contact you with questions. Follow up with them as time permits and check in on their goals. Maybe you’ll be so impressed by their use of a tool that you’ll want to use them as an example the next time you teach.

The Missouri School of Journalism’s Jen Lee Reeves will be teaching a News University Webinar on this topic on Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. You can sign up here.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Except I think part of the point was organizations prevent those moments from happening.

    But it wouldn’t be Poynter if the blame weren’t thrown onto the individuals, rather than the organizations. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Good points, Mark. Those types of limitations can be crippling, and they can easily turn into excuses for not learning or using a tool.

    The lightbulb moment (or series of moments, in some cases) that you mentioned is key. That’s why I think keeping the “Why should I care” question in mind is really important.


  • http://jfwhite.org/ James

    Amazing how even after so many new social networks have emerged and come into acceptance, each new one still stuggles to gain a foothold with print media folks. I agree that tapping into experience with sites like Twitter can help pave the road for new sites like Pinterest. 

    One interesting consquence of social media for journos is that it becomes very easy to see who the movers and shakers in a community are. Already, I see a few very influential folks on Pinterest (mostly designers, photographers, other visual creatives) that are crying out for coverage. 

  • Anonymous

    We’ve found that there are often institutional barriers within news organisations that all but preclude them from using social media effectively. A lack of awareness of Twitter rate limits, browser limitations, and the basics – broadband speed. (And that includes some of the biggest news media organisations IN THE WORLD)

    Those problems can be crippling – you sell someone on the concept of social media as a tool, only to have the IT department say no, or for their sluggish internet connection to reduce the actionability of the concepts you’ve sold to nil. They go to try and apply their new-found knowledge, only to hit a (fire)wall. They then discard that knowledge and revert to their old ways.

    But when someone has the lightbulb moment, or when a few of them grasp it at the same time, it can precipitate a dramatic change.

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    Hi Dan,

    That’s a great way to demonstrate the upside. And it enables you to show journalists a real-life, recent example of how you’ve used Twitter to collect a variety of viewpoints.

    I know some people who tweet links to their presentations ahead of time and ask people for feedback. Sometimes, they’ll take that feedback and tweak their presentation accordingly.


  • http://bydanielvictor.com Daniel Victor

    I always try to demonstrate the upside. I’ll often start the session by tweeting out something along the lines of:

    “I’m talking to a bunch of journalists. Can you tell them a good reason why they should get on Twitter?”

    I always get a bunch of responses, because people on social media love nothing more than to talk about social media. Then I make a point of how diverse the responses are, how many viewpoints we got that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own…and I ask them to imagine applying that kind of tool to their stories.