7 Tips for using Twitter as a journalist

Twitter has come a long way since its release in 2006, and according to a recent survey of 14 countries, nearly 60% of journalists now use it for everything from developing new stories to verifying facts and finding sources.

Guardian reporter Paul Lewis demonstrated just how valuable Twitter can be to a journalist by sharing his story of how the social networking service enabled him to track down witnesses and verify facts in his investigations into two controversial deaths.

But although Twitter can be a powerful tool, there are also a few things that journalists need to be cautious of, such as inadvertently spreading inaccuracies or tweeting things that could be misconstrued and reflect badly on themselves or the media outlet they represent.

Here are eight tips for avoiding the pitfalls and for using Twitter more effectively.

1. Learn to separate fact from fiction

In a recent TED talk, journalist Markham Nolan talks about how today’s journalists often rely on the audience to find news and figure out what angle to take.

This is a significant change from the days when the audience could only react to the news after it had been reported, and while it has made things easier for journalists in some ways, it has also made it more challenging to separate the real facts, images and footage from the fakes that inevitably end up online.

An important takeaway from Nolan’s talk is just how vital it is to fact-check before reposting or reporting about things that appear online.

If a story or fact you propagate turns out to be inaccurate, it’s your reputation (and that of your employer) that will take the hit.  Fortunately, the web also provides us with the tools to sift through all the available information and pick out the important and accurate – it’s just a matter of learning how to use them.

2. Keep tweets as clear and straightforward as possible

Getting your message across in just 140 words will take some practice, but keep in mind that the most effective tweets are those that are clearly worded and easy to understand at a glance.

Cramming too many hashtags or @ mentions into one tweet can make it difficult to read and may even appear spammy. Try to use these features only when necessary to provide context or link the tweet to a particular trend or conversation.  

3. Use images effectively

Tweets that include images tend to be far more popular, and a Buffer App analysis showed that tweets with images received 18% more clicks, 89% more favourites, and 150% more retweets. This is likely because images are more eye-catching and provide insight that a written description just never can.

Along with photos that relate to the headline or story you are tweeting about, things like infographics and charts can be very effective. Just double check that the image you want to share looks good on the Twitter webpage and on a mobile app, as well as in high definition.

4. Start conversations, rather than only tweeting headlines

When you’re tweeting out breaking news, a headline is usually enough to get readers interested, but for most other stories, you need to find a way to pique curiosity or start a conversation through your tweet.

For example, you could share your favourite part of the story, mention an interesting detail about how you first came across the story, highlight an interview you conducted, or even ask a question that will get readers talking.

Including interesting stats or quotes in your tweets, can also be a great way to generate interest without going into a long description about the content you are sharing or referring to.

5. Interact with your audience

Twitter is a great platform for sharing content and distributing information, but another big reason for its popularity among journalists is the ability to interact with your audience in real time.

Always make a point of answering questions directed at you, and try to reply or retweet when someone shares an interesting viewpoint or feedback that you think may benefit other readers.

In addition to directly engaging with your audience, you can also promote conversations from around your site to show people that you are interested in what they have to say. For example, your tweets could sometimes feature popular reader’s comments or letters to the editor.

Aside from showing your readers that they are being heard, this can generate further interest in stories or topics that have already proven to be popular.

6. Provide some background information

When tweeting about breaking news, it can also be great to share related stories to provide some context. If you have any archived stories about the same person, company or happening that is in the spotlight, sharing these can give readers some perspective and a clearer insight into how the current situation developed.

7. Follow newsworthy people and organisations

Journalist and Editor Steve Buttry often writes about using Twitter in journalism, and points out that the ability to follow newsworthy people and organisations is one very valuable use of Twitter for journalists.

“If you don’t follow the people and organisations on your beat, you are going to miss news as sure as if you ignore their news releases, press conferences and misstatements they make in their public speeches,” notes Buttry.

Whether you cover sports, celebrities or politics, Twitter can be a great source of information. Most public figures now use Twitter to express opinions and share their views or make official statements, and any of these have the potential to be newsworthy.
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