In the latest update to his e-text “Searchlights and Sunglasses,” author Eric Newton calls on journalism educators to integrate social media into their lesson plans. Here is an example of what that integration might look like for an introductory journalism course.
“A train crashed Monday night two miles outside of town, according to the sheriff’s office.”
That’s the local newspaper lead students in our introductory journalism course come up with after being presented with a series of facts about a fictional train crash.
“A train crashed Monday night two miles outside of town, according to the sheriff’s office. #danger”
And that’s the lead they often come up with asked to use the same information to write a Twitter update announcing the crash.
The difference between traditional news and social media is more than just a #hashtag. In discussion, that’s something our budding journalists say they understand. They are all card-carrying members of the digital generation, after all, and they regularly use multiple social media platforms in their personal lives.
But just as social media users opt to share photos via Instagram rather than Facebook — or choose to live-update the latest Scandal episode on Twitter, not Tumblr — journalists must decide how to best use social media channels to satisfy various storytelling needs.
That means focusing less on the specific technological aspects of social media and more on how those aspects fulfill different information needs. As University of British Columbia Associate Professor Alfred Hermida said in a previous Remix article on teaching social media, “Don’t focus on the tools and platforms. Focus on how the characteristics of these technologies, such as reach, speed and visibility change how we communicate.”
Our journalism students likely agree that social media are important. They probably acknowledge that they’ll use social media in their future careers. Odds are, many of them already consider themselves social media savvy. Yet, in its transition from local newspaper to Twitter update — the train crash lead re-emerges with nothing fresh beyond a solitary hashtag.
The challenge is not only to teach students how to best use platforms that currently exist, but also to prepare them to be able to capitalize on the features of platforms that will come to exist as technology advances. We could create an assignment that would focus entirely on writing for Twitter — perhaps with an emphasis on choosing more effective hashtags than #danger — but the Twitter of tomorrow may not be the Twitter of today. Students must learn learn how to evaluate the strengths of a social media platform and craft their messages accordingly.
Teaching social media — a practical tool
- The starting point is simply to look at what percentage of users on these various social media sites actually get news from the platforms. I’ve come across many students who assume that, since they themselves do not use social media for news, no one else does either. This is clearly not the case, as can be seen in the survey data provided by the Pew Research Journalism Project. Nearly half of Facebook users get news from the site — not exactly small potatoes when you figure two-thirds of U.S. adults use the social network. Ten percent of U.S. adults get news from YouTube, slightly more than the 8 percent who get news via Twitter. It’s a basic but important point for students to grasp: People do get news via social media.
- The next step is to challenge students to think about what makes each social network unique. There are functional differences — such as the ability to add photo, video, hyperlinks, image filters, hashtags, etc. — but encourage them to think about how those technological features translate into storytelling tools. For example, Instagram isn’t usually the first tool journalists reach for when breaking news happens. But during the Ferguson protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown, I noticed a reporter took portraits of individual protestors with her phone and used the caption to share that person’s reason for protesting. She used the strengths of Instagram — its emphasis on images and short text descriptions — to focus on the human interest aspect of the story. To get students thinking about how the features of each social media platform might influence their storytelling decision, I’ve created this simple worksheet.
- After some brainstorming about how to make the best use of various social media channels, the students will benefit from seeing a real example of how a story is covered via different social media channels. Storify is a great tool for this. Even though it’s normally used as a tool to see a story evolve over time, its ability to weave together various social media posts is a great way to draw comparisons between those posts. I’ve built one Storify here, comparing social media coverage of a Carnival cruise ship sailing with a woman aboard who may have had with Ebola (she didn’t). Students could just talk about this example, or they could pick a trending news story from that day and create their own Storify.
- Finally, students should craft leads for the various social media platforms. In our introductory class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we use our set of facts about the fictional train crash for assignments like this. For example, we would tell the students that the latest information is that the National Transportation Safety Board is now on the scene to investigate the cause of the crash. They would be asked to write several social media updates based on that information. These social media leads could be based on any set of facts, though. I’ve provided a sample set of facts here, as well as a sample assignment using those facts.
Mallory Perryman is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as the lead teaching assistant for J202: Mass Communication Practices, the first course students complete once admitted to the journalism program. She completed her undergraduate and master’s studies at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Eric Newton and EdShift curator Katy Culver will be presenting Thursday, Oct. 30, at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, covering “Green Shoots in Journalism Education.” Sign up for the livestream to learn more about positive curriculum, course and assignment innovations, including incorporating social media.