Best Twitter practices for journalists


When news broke of an explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line, Denver Post Social Media Editor Dan Petty and his online team immediately scoured Twitter for leads to track down Colorado runners. The first Twitter video, which captured the first blast, showed the race clock at 4:09:43, a starting place so Petty and others could find local runners who had crossed the finish line. "Twitter will always be faster," Petty said. "You can have a newsroom of 200 people, but we can't compete with hundreds of people at the finish line."

News editors no longer have to wait for Associated Press updates or CNN videos, thanks to the meteoric spread of citizens armed with smart phones that can deliver photos, video and tweets even before local news trucks arrive on the scene.

When the Boston blast news broke, the Post's newsroom was celebrating its Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. That coverage all started when an online night producer spotted the news via Twitter at 1 a.m.

Twitter now has 500 million users around the globe, making it a powerful new tool for journalists. To help newsrooms develop their social media strategies, the Reynolds Journalism Institute has compiled a "Twitter Best Practices Guide," based on interviews, scholarly research and Twitter's own tips for journalists.

  1. Make it smart and engaging. The Denver Post gave readers immediate access to video of the first bomb blast in Boston via a Vine video, a Twitter service for sharing six-second videos. "Vine wasn't even in existence six months ago," Petty said. "Seeing something like that is helpful." Police officers investigating the Boston Marathon bombing relied heavily on both citizens' and journalists' videos and photos shared via social media to track down the suspects.
  2. Make it a conversation. Journalists should be willing to engage with readers, and not just use Twitter as a promotion for content. Journalists need to respond to citizens' tweets and ask what issues they want your newsroom to explore. By actively following community members, journalists can get more hyper-local news. This can lead to a big payoff: more sources beyond the usual talking heads. To be sure, many journalists are most comfortable tweeting with fellow reporters. While it's helpful to stay on top of what your competition is doing, Twitter should not be seen as the digital water cooler.
  3. Make hashtags useful. It's helpful for readers to have specific hashtags that are easily identified so they can organize what they follow any given day. For instance, the hashtag #guncontrol now serves as a virtual front page on the debate over toughening laws on firearms. The hashtag has great power, as seen in the 2012 presidential election. Jason Noble, political reporter for the Des Moines Register, recalls a meeting between the press corps and President Barack Obama's public relations staff, which was lobbying for reporters to adopt a pro-Obama hashtag, #rockwithbarack, when covering campaign events. Noble and others refused to adopt such a blatantly partisan hashtag, opting instead for a more neutral one, #barack, so it would still alert readers when they were covering Obama's campaign events.
  4. Make it about your best work. It's tempting to tweet every water-skiing squirrel photo, but pick your shots on what you share. If there's a multiple-car pile up on the interstate, tweet it. But if it's just a 5-minute delay in traffic, skip it.
  5. Make it professional. Journalists have gotten into hot water by sounding off about their own opinions via Twitter. Maintain the same standards you do when writing a story. It's OK to post a picture of your dog, but don't sound off about PETA. "I'm personal in a really controlled way," said Noble, of the Register. "Personality, but not revealing any political perspective" of his own.
  6. Make sure you share others' good work. Curation of other good work is one of the benefits to Twitter users. Journalists can distill the best of what's out there and save readers time by posting what they're reading. "I want us to be the source for the best information out there even if it's not our own," said Petty of the Denver Post. Even when reporters are competing on top beats, the best ones know they should share what they find. "My readers want the best content and if someone else got a better story, it might be worth making them aware of it," said Nathan Bomey, General Motors reporter at the Detroit Free Press.
  7. Make it live when appropriate. Mark Luckie, Twitter's creative content manager for journalism and news, said posting multiple tweets in succession can increase the number of followers when covering live news. Plan ahead when you know a big announcement is coming from City Hall. But remember to keep it relevant. Noble said not everyone wants minute-to-minute updates, but he looks for information that can provide context to the situation.

Download the Best Twitter practices for journalists tip sheet from RJI's tip sheet catalog

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