Every journalist has a social media horror story. Whether it’s a minor misspelling, a break of objectivity or an online beef, the prevalence of social media in journalism today makes very public missteps almost unavoidable. But what if journalists had better tools to avoid these mistakes — or, at the very least, reduce the worry that we’ll inadvertently make them?
In a June 2022 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 12,000 journalists, 94% said they use at least one social media app for work. Their favorites: Twitter, followed by Facebook.
Yet only 41% of them feel social media has a “positive impact on their ability to build trust in the news they produce.”
Despite this, journalists put pressure on themselves to be active on the platforms. As Northwestern Medill students who spent the summer researching this topic, we approached our project with two questions: How can journalists avoid the worst parts of social media, and how can they use it for the public good?
Journalists across the nation have similar advice, which we’ve gathered here.
1. Make a Twitter account, but set boundaries
Journalists recommend making a Twitter account so your name is visible to readers who search for you online. How active you are is up to you — some share updates and hot takes daily, while others use it only for big announcements.
Your bio should match the content you produce. Brian Rosenthal uses a more formal bio (“@NYTimes metro reporter | @ColumbiaJourn adjunct”). Media commentator Ana Navarro-Cárdenas includes humor (“failed dieter”).
“Be aware the bio is often the first thing people are going to see, and they’re going to treat your Twitter account accordingly,” said Adam Sanders, Princeton University student and news director of WPRB radio in Princeton, New Jersey. “It’s a bit jarring to see a tweet about a campus sexual assault case or discourse on race and inequality from an account that has a very silly bio.”
Your Twitter handle should be identifiable as you. If someone else shares your name (calling all John Smiths!), add a middle initial or a short phrase so people know it is your account. For example, Sanders changed his Twitter handle from @varsityquizbowl to @adambsanders.
If you’d like to hear from readers, include your email address in your bio and keep your direct messages open.
Tanya Chen, senior media reporter at Insider and former deputy social news editor at BuzzFeed News, lists her email in her bio but only uses Twitter during working hours as a way to help protect her mental health. She limits her social media presence because of the personal attacks she received from “rabid fans” of the people she covered.
“Journalists are people,” Chen said. “We make mistakes, and we take accountability for those mistakes and rectify them, but it doesn’t justify how cruel and relentless people are online.”
2. Use it for reporting
Social media helps you reach people close to breaking news, such as a natural disaster or bill that’s up for vote. Live-tweeting small details such as the energy of the crowd at a concert or photos of protesters’ signs can help draw attention to your posts, as they share a firsthand perspective that might be left out of a finished news story.
Social media posts can give you story ideas, but make sure they are newsworthy. “I feel like one of the fatal flaws of social media is that anything can be named a trend just because a few people talked about it,” said Brock Colyar, a features writer at New York Magazine. “But that doesn’t always mean that it should rise to the level of a story.”
3. Network effectively
Follow thought leaders in the field you report on to build a network of expert sources. This includes academics, nonprofit leaders and other journalists.
“I use Twitter to hear about new jobs,” said Erica Snow, social media editor at MarketWatch. “It’s a really great way to get in touch with hiring managers and other people who may be able to connect you to your next professional opportunity.”
4. Beware the echo chamber
Follow people across demographics, regions and subjects.
“I feel that I benefit from having some journalists in my feed that are not East Coast or Northeast based,” said Christophe Haubursin, video producer at Vox. “Try to select your follows in a way that gives you discourse diversity.”
Remember that your readership and your Twitter following are not always the same. “I sometimes think that ‘journalism Twitter’ is exactly that: Our audiences are other journalists,” Colyar said. “When I’m writing a story, I should not be thinking about the way other journalists will receive it. I should be thinking about how the audience of New York Magazine will receive it.”
5. Share your work
Sharing your published stories can get you noticed by fellow journalists — and recruiters. Be generous and share your peers’ work, too. Axios reporter Ashley Gold regularly retweets her colleagues’ stories.
“It’s useful to see what they are working on and what scoops they might have,” Gold said. “You can keep up with what your journalist colleagues are doing without having to go to their publications’ websites.”
Student journalists also appreciate replies and retweets from working professionals. “Sometimes when you write for a student publication, it is like shouting into the void,” said Alex Perry, Medill class of 2024 and a Dow Jones News Fund intern. “Being acknowledged by people who are established in the industry is something Twitter has helped me do and it’s something I want to give back to people.”
6. Comment thoughtfully
Unlike full-fledged stories, your tweets likely aren’t going through an editing or fact-checking process, so be cautious. Remember that you also represent your publication, and your words could hurt the credibility of colleagues covering the subject of your tweet.
Humanize yourself online and do not simply be a billboard for your work. “The best journalists put their content out there and then ask questions,” said Dan Roth, the editor-in-chief of LinkedIn. “You are using it as a chance to not only talk about what you are publishing but to develop a deeper relationship with your audience. This should be a conversation, not preaching.”
For example, Roth promoted his interview with Bill Gates by noting his personal takeaways: The Microsoft founder said the COVID-19 pandemic set back the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s ongoing aid initiatives, and he spoke on co-chairing the foundation after the pair’s divorce.
7. Consider using a private account
Private accounts can safeguard against unwanted harassment, but they limit who sees your tweets.
“General users want to interact with journalists on the platform,” said Eric Zuckerman, head of U.S. news partnerships at Twitter. “A lot of people on Twitter say that Twitter helps them find new journalists to follow. People like it when journalists tweet about things outside of their typical beats.”
8. Use LinkedIn to supplement your social media diet
When posting on the site, work with the algorithm to get your posts in front of as many people as possible, said Ashley Peterson, deputy managing editor of global projects at LinkedIn News. She recommends using hashtags sparingly because the algorithm identifies an excess of them as spam and will filter your post out of your followers’ feeds. She also recommends tagging notable people and companies who are relevant to the stories you share (e.g., Roth tagging Bill Gates), as everyone who follows those people will see your post in their feed.
“You have to think about how you boost your stuff beyond just your network,” Peterson said. “When people come to LinkedIn, they might be coming to look for a job. They might be coming to make a connection. They might be coming to update their profile. They’re not coming here just to read news, so we have to find ways to get in front of members.”
9. Diversify your online presence with TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat
A new Pew Research study found teens are more likely to use video-based platforms. A mere 23% of those surveyed said they ever use Twitter, compared to 95% for YouTube and 67% for TikTok.
Journalists who cover trends (like thrifting) and events (the one chip challenge) often use Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat to find sources through hashtags and to reach out through direct messages. Many journalists keep their Instagram accounts personal and unaffiliated with their work.
Journalists toe the line between private citizens and public figures. As such, their social media habits are under more scrutiny than the average user. But the promise of audience expansion and industry recognition keeps many journalists on these platforms. This constant pressure is unsustainable. While our words aren’t set in stone, they can help ease the burden of being a watchdog, sensemaker, community resource and online forum leader wrapped in one.
Note: A quote included in an earlier draft of this article has been removed because it was provided off the record.