What every young journalist should know about using Twitter

Young journalists have a lot to teach the rest of the industry about how to use social networking sites. They grew up with these sites, and many are eager to use them in the workplace.

But as a journalism educator, I've found that some students don't take Twitter seriously enough; they don't see it as a legitimate source for news or journalism, and they tweet whatever they want, not realizing the impact that tweets can have.

Twitter is taken very seriously at many different levels. The Secret Service, for example, responded to a high schooler's tweet earlier this month after she made a reference to assassinating President Barack Obama. And last week, the Kansas Chiefs' official Twitter account issued an apology after insulting a fan.

So how can professors best prepare their students for the Twittersphere? I spoke to four Twitter-savvy journalism professors for their tips.

Assume that everything you tweet is public, even from a private account.

Sue Robinson, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says students have a level of comfort with Facebook and its privacy settings and therefore think they're also "safe" when using Twitter. In a phone interview, she advised students to look into the future and ask themselves, “Can this get me into trouble 10 years from now?”

"Students just don’t believe anyone is paying attention to them on Twitter," she said. "They think it doesn’t matter what they say. We need to change that mindset.”

Thomas Lieb, professor of journalism and new media at Towson University, says students need to stop and think before they tweet. “As with all social media, you need to remember that your tweets are public and they will be around a long, long time,” he said via email. “A poorly thought-out tweet can come back to haunt you just like all those drunken photos on Facebook can.”

Professors need to reinforce this idea that Twitter is a permanent record. “Even though Twitter feels fleeting, tweets can live on through retweets, screengrabs, etc.,” said Andy Bechtel, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In sum, don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want the police, a professor, editor, employer or your mother to see.

Tweet with a purpose & be professional.

Lieb says his main concern is that many journalism students don't consider Twitter to be an important tool.

“Very few of my students at the junior or senior level come into class being active on Twitter. The ones who are active only see it as a private message service [to] use with close friends; they have accounts but don't make them public," he said. “I guess this lack of awareness can lead to problems: If you are not used to driving a car, chances are pretty good you're going to make a mess of things when you hop behind the wheel.”

He says students need to “clearly define the purpose” of their Twitter account and write their tweets accordingly. Some journalists define the purpose of their account in their Twitter bios.

Bechtel says students should keep in mind that their Twitter account will generally be seen as reflective “of you and your organization. Be professional.”

This also means avoiding SMS language and rumors. As Robinson says, “Informal conversation is no excuse for sloppiness or passing on incorrect information.”

Add value with each tweet & see the bigger picture.

Leslie-Jean Thornton, associate professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says students should also use Twitter to add value to their online identity and shouldn't "waste a tweet."

“Add value with every one of your tweets. Sometimes the value is revealing yourself as a nice, maybe even witty, person they'd like to be around. (Do this in small doses). Other times, you might add a comment to a link you're forwarding or further a discussion in a meaningful way," Thornton said via email. "Give as much information as you can. 'New blog post' is pretty useless. Giving a clue as to the post's substance is meaningful even if the person doesn't click through to the post.” It's a good idea to tweet links to not just your own stories but to other stories you're reading.

Thornton advises students -- and faculty -- to view Twitter as part of a bigger picture.

“It is so not about what you had for lunch or what color your nails are,” she said. “It’s all about developing a network and a beat.”

She says some students view Twitter as an isolated stream of random snippets and need to be shown how to use it as a global information network. She advises professors to use tools like Storify to help students realize the value of Twitter as a storytelling and verification tool.

Robinson says students need to step back and look at Twitter’s multiplying effect: “It’s the network upon networks. Every tweet has followers on top of followers, which means that any tweet can have a volumizing effect." And any tweet can go viral.

Don’t hog the Twitter stream.

Live tweeting poses particular problems for students (and anyone, really); their regular followers can feel spammed when they’re suddenly exposed to a stream of live tweets.

Thornton suggests that students let their followers know that they'll be live tweeting. “It should be clear why you're flooding Twitter with tweets," she said. "If you can, give people who want to follow all those tweets a hashtag to follow."

Bechtel agrees: “If you are going to tweet frequently from a live event, give your followers a heads-up with an introductory tweet. That way, they'll be ready for a lot of tweets from you in a short period. (Example: "I'm at a social media workshop. I'll pass along the best tips as I hear them.")

When possible, write tweets that are shorter than 140 characters.

A general rule of thumb is to stay under the 140 character count to allow for retweets.

“If possible, also allow room for a comment or hashtag to be added,” Thornton said. “Don't make the retweeter edit for space if it's tight. Use an "&" for "and" if you have to, and write so the tweet is tight. Information trumps AP style so long as the message is clear and accurate.”

Tweeting, it turns out, can be a good exercise in learning how to write short -- and well.

Roll the credits.

Lieb advises students to “give credit where credit is due.” This is also good journalism practice to show readers where you got your information from.

“Anytime you tweet something that was originally tweeted by someone you follow, acknowledge them by using (via @somebody) or (h/t @somebody). Even if you write a brand new tweet around the link, you wouldn't have known about it if not for them,” Lieb said.

It’s also good practice to include “RTs are not endorsements” in your profile. And try to include retweets from both sides of the aisle if your tweets are any way political in nature.

Finally, be responsive.

It's important to be respectful on Twitter -- and responsive. Twitter, after all, is a great tool for engaging with your audience.

“Respond to followers in a timely, courteous way," Bechtel said. "Twitter is a conversation, not a broadcast.”

  • Kelly Fincham

    Kelly teaches journalism at Hofstra University at undergrad and graduate level. She has worked in journalism in the U.S, Ireland and Australia for 30 years and has spoken about journalism at conferences in Canada, the U.S., Scotland and Ireland.


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