How to assign a Snapchat story in a journalism class

University of New Mexico students Savana Carollo, Arianna Sena and John Acosta created a Snapchat My Story on Feb. 11, 2016 as part of an assignment aimed at learning how to use the app as a storytelling platform.

University of New Mexico students Savana Carollo, Arianna Sena and John Acosta created a Snapchat My Story on Feb. 11, 2016 as part of an assignment aimed at learning how to use the app as a storytelling platform.

As journalism educators, we can’t ignore the emergence of Snapchat as a storytelling platform. With news outlets and Snapchat itself hiring reporters to cover major news like the presidential elections using the app, I feel compelled to talk with students about Snapchat’s potential to tell stories and connect with the audience. During a 300-level multimedia journalism class this semester, I tried an assignment where students worked on deadline to create a short story on campus.

When I mentioned the assignment at the start of the semester, students immediately were interested in how it might work in a news context. About half of them said they use the app on a regular basis.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a frequent user, although I do spend more and more time looking at how news organizations use the platform. So to prepare, I focused on the My Story function, where journalists can create stories of an event that can be shared for 24 hours (unlike Snap photos or video, which are shared with friends for up to 10 seconds and then disappear.)

I didn’t focus as much on the other features of Snapchat, including filters that are added to people’s faces. When I showed filters that put your city name on a photo based on your geolocation, a few students excitedly piped in and said I should try the “face filters.” Sure enough, you can take a photo and then add a filter that looks as if you are breathing fire. Or swimming underwater. Or have purple eyes. I wouldn’t use those in a news context of course, but that’s the interesting intersection we’re at with social platforms that can be used as journalism tools but that largely are used for more lighthearted topics. I made everyone laugh as I projected my fire-breathing selfie onto the large screen in the front of the room — a moment captured in a video Snap by a student. I am a little bummed that the student sent the video to her friends instead of saving it to her My Story, as that moment is gone forever. Of course, that’s part of what Snapchat is.

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To start the lecture, I talked about the history of Snapchat. I showed the first Snapchat resume and then went through the basics of using the app.

Students seemed well versed in the how tos of using the app to communicate with friends, so we also talked about the Discover section of Snapchat, where news organizations like CNN and the Wall Street Journal are presenting news. A quick survey in the room showed that students were equally interested in news topics as much as content from outlets like Cosmo and people like DJ Khaled.

My goal was for students to think about using a tool they already understand and enjoy as a platform for journalism. I wanted them to practice their interviewing skills using the video Snap option, and I wanted them to practice producing something on deadline. So I gave them about 30 minutes to do five interviews and five photos with at least two titles.

I tied their interviews into a project we have on campus where journalism students ask the public what they are curious about and then report on those questions. For this assignment, students were to ask people what they want to know about Albuquerque or New Mexico.

The results were pretty good. In their work, I saw my more shy students open up on camera. I saw my more visual students show their talents. And I saw the students who were newer to the app take an interest in how they could use it for reporting. Along the way, they produced a story that could be used to complement other reporting. They also seemed excited, and many of you know that getting students excited in the classroom can be a challenge.

One student tweeted:

I would try this assignment again for sure, maybe as a component to larger story that students are producing using more traditional multi-media approaches.

Here are my takeaways for other journalism educators considering a Snapchat assignment:

Assign groups and team captains.

Chances are, one-fourth of your students are experts in Snapchat and can show others. They also can help you during your demonstration if you aren’t a Snapchat pro.

Explain the limitations of the app.

For video, there’s a 10-second limit in Snapchat, so students had to prep their sources that their answers had to be succinct.

Have a specific content focus for the assignment.

Newer students will be focused on learning how to use the app, so directing them on the content side lets them focus on learning the tool.

Explain that there might be a disconnect between the tone of Snapchat and the subject of the story.

For example, students don’t want to be lighthearted and using all kinds of emoji if they are covering something serious.

Remind students that accuracy and good cutlines still matter.

I asked students to get the same kind of cutline information they would get if they were publishing a photo online or in a news outlet.

Journalism students at the University of New Mexico recently completed a Snapchat story as part of a class assignment aimed at having students explore the popular app's journalism potential.

Journalism students at the University of New Mexico recently completed a Snapchat story as part of a class assignment aimed at having students explore the popular app’s journalism potential.

Remember to have students save their My Stories so you can see them later on for grading and class critique.

If they don’t, you have nothing to see.

Have fun.

Many of my students this semester are in the middle of learning the technical aspects of professional video cameras and audio recorders, which are unfamiliar and can be complicated. Allowing them to try storytelling with something a little more familiar allowed them to relax a bit — which is what Snapchat is all about.

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What journalism students know — and want to know — about the role of social media in news coverage

In an introduction to media writing class I teach at the University of New Mexico, we had the chance to talk Tuesday morning about the role of social media in the coverage of the Boston bombings.

Following up on a lecture I gave two weeks ago about how journalists use social media, I touched on how Twitter, Facebook and Storify played major roles in how people learned about Monday’s tragedy. 

I asked students if any of them had waited to read about the bombings in this morning’s paper. No hands went up.

Had anyone waited until the 5, 6 or 10 o’clock news to learn of the events? A few hands.

Did anyone hear about it on social media? Many more hands. Students mentioned Facebook and Twitter as their sources of information.

I showed examples of Storify curations about the explosions done by papers small and large, and I displayed my Tweetdeck column with the updates to the Boston Marathon hashtag flying by.

I pulled up a Vine video of the moment of one of the bombings that had gone viral, so students could see how anybody with a cell phone could become a “journalist” in a moment’s notice. I pointed out a Youtube channel of videos of all kinds — from all kinds of people — from the event.

As a grad student in the Digital Journalism and Design program at the University of South Florida, I find all of this very interesting, on so many levels. That’s a whole other blog post.

But what I found even more interesting were the questions my students had about all of this. These mostly freshman journalism students just starting their study of reporting asked questions about digital tools that journalism education leaders need to know.

(I think I answered all of them, but I mentioned that a few of the topics didn’t always have clear answers and could be the subject of whole semesters of study.)

Some of the questions were about the proper or ethical use of social media information posted by others. 
One student wanted to know if the media or just anyone can take a social media post — whether it be text, photo or video — and reuse it?

Another wanted to know if retweeting something libelous could get the individual passing on the bad info in legal trouble.

A few questions had to do with the mechanics of using social media. Who creates or chooses a hashtag for a big event? Can just anyone do that?

Another asked about who manages curations like those on Storify. Does anyone edit that work?

A tangential topic had to do with how television news was presented, and a student asked why an NBC reporter mentioned the nationality of a person of interest in the case. A discussion ensued about needing to fill up air time in a 24-hour news cycle — a topic for another day.

The bombings also made me think about what skills journalism and media students need to know to get a job and stay employed these days. Yes, it’s (deadline) writing and reporting and critical thinking. Yes, it’s photography and videography and audio. And it’s how to make graphs, maps and charts.

But the role of digital tools and social media can’t be overlooked.

Students need to know the basics of social media hashtags to be able to join in a conversation about an event, or at least read and learn from it. They need to understand how to sort through social media posts for true information and leads for other information.

Students need to know how to shoot decent photos and videos with a smart phone. They must be able to edit and upload them  from the scene. Knowledge of other equipment such as DSLRs, video and audio equipment is even better, but many students these days will only ever use a cell phone as a reporting tool.

Students need to understand other technology used in a major event like this, such as the Google people finder that was set up to connect runners with family members, or alternative blog sites that were set up when the Boston Globe site went down.

It also might help students who are interested in the developer side of news to understand the advantages and the limitations of mobile information. During our discussion on how students got the news, one asked about designing a mobile news website vs a native phone app — a key distinction to think about for big stories that have large photo galleries or video files.

As they learn information gathering skills, students need to figure out what to do with all the reporting they gather on their mobile phones in case cell phone service slows to a crawl or is cut off. That’s where the old fashioned approaches to journalism come in as handy as ever.

I could add more skills to this list, such as creating heat maps with Twitter data of the locations of most of the tweets about the marathon. Other data visualization and informational graphics abilities are also a plus.

Along with other lessons from the event, I hope the Boston bombings help journalism professors rethink how we teach journalism students to prepare to be the reporters on the scene of the next big news event.