How to Use Twitter to Connect Online Students to News

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Like many journalism educators across the country, I’ve been teaching more news writing classes online. It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity to connect with students – and to connect them with the curriculum – in new ways.

To be clear, teaching AP Style or lead writing to students I can’t work with in person is definitely different. I like sitting next to students at a computer to go through edits, and I think explaining the nuances of writing and editing are best done face to face.

But teaching news writing online offers unique chances to interact with students, and to connect students to each other at the same time. For my Writing and Editing for Multimedia class at the University of New Mexico, I’ve been using Twitter as a space outside our discussion boards where students can talk and learn about journalism.  

These public posts put students in touch with new journalism education resources, they force students to read and analyze current reporting, and they teach students the value of having a professional Twitter account for discussing reporting in a way that a class-only discussion board can’t.

Here’s how I’ve used this approach so far.

A social media presence assignment

It all starts with one assignment that students work on each week throughout the semester. The idea is for learners to have a consistent (at least three times a week) presence on Twitter focused on journalism or journalism education. Students tweet about articles, videos or photos and then talk about the quality of the journalism — not the content. For example: Does their audience think the lead works? Do the photos help tell the story? Do multimedia elements distract from the piece?

This isn’t a social media class, and there isn’t much time to spend on the basics of using Twitter. But to help get them started, I go through hashtags, usernames and other beginner aspects. (I also provide guides like this and other information that points to the usefulness of Twitter in journalism.)

Once students realize we’re not tweeting about lattes and sunsets here, the work begins. Their first concern often is that they won’t have enough to tweet about. I address this by prompting them to post tweets about our weekly topics.

So when they study lead writing in class, they look for story leads, post them and talk about why they were effective. (Or not.)


When they study headlines, they look for examples and post those.

These exercises get them reading news stories and thinking about the mechanics of how those stories came to be, something I think can only help them as they start to write their own stories. I also tell students they can use Twitter to look for sources or to post their stories once published. To keep this all together (and to make grading easy) students use a hashtag for class. At the end of the semester, students write a short reflection on what they learned, what went well (and didn’t) and how they will continue to use Twitter in the future.

Quickly connecting to outside resources

Twitter users recognize the value of the breadth of resources available on pretty much any topic, and journalism and journalism education are no exception. There are ACES chats on editing to join, Thomson Foundation Facebook Live seminars on mobile reporting to watch, or other resources including the NPR training site to be consumed. It’s much easier and faster to retweet announcements about those events than going into our learning management system and posting something students might not read in a timely manner. For some chats, I offer extra credit if students participate and tweet five things. This incentivizes students to log on often to see what’s happening and enriches the class beyond the materials posted. My hope is that they follow a variety of accounts they otherwise might not have known about, and they continue to fill their feeds with helpful material well beyond class.


Strengths and weaknesses of this approach

One thing I really like about this assignment is that students are learning a few things at once. They are looking for different types of news and thinking about what makes a story strong or a headline weak. At the same time, they also are building their professional social media skills. They also are thinking about appropriate ways to communicate in public forums. As they post, I emphasize that tweets for class should be professional and well-written, and for the most part, they are.

I also like that students who are new to Twitter (and even express reservations about using it) generally come to see the value of it. I’ve had students say they deleted their accounts when the assignment was over, but they still learned something from doing it.

One challenge — and it’s one I have in my in-person classes as well — is getting students excited to use social media for school. To many students, it’s still a place to show off with pics of friends or pets and not something they want their professor to read. I encourage them to create “work” accounts if that makes them more comfortable, and I create lists of each class instead of following each student. To keep students engaged on Twitter, I try to be funny and personable. I also post job ads that require social media skills, so they can see how all of this could come in handy after graduation.

Join us!

The beauty of having a class hashtag is that anyone can join in the conversation. I use #CJ278 for this class, but I also use #newswritingonline in hopes of connecting to other educators who teach news writing at other institutions.

Kate Nash Cunningham is the social media editor for MediaShift. She teaches digital journalism at the University of New Mexico. Follow her @katenashnm.


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.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 11.36.03 AM

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.

Another cool curation tool for students

Over the weekend, I had students in my Newspaper Practice class attend and report on the local Day of the Dead parade. The parade has evolved into a pretty large event, and I spent a good deal of time waiting around to meet up with the students and check in on their reporting progress. As I people watched and took a few photos, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone — including the elaborately dressed grandmas in the crowd — had a smart phone. That meant lots of photos would be posted on social media.

With sure to be powerful images of people dressed in blacks, rich blues and red to honor the dead, I thought the event was just the kind of thing to be curated. As it turns out, about a week ago I had heard about a new tool called Brickflow and I was thinking of trying it out.

As background, I’ve already covered how to use another curation tool, Storify, in this class, and I was pleased when one of my students set out last night to curate the event, which has huge cultural significance here. Now that I have them thinking about and doing curations, it was time to see what other programs I can teach them. I tried Brickflow this morning and I like it. The biggest difference between the two is that Storify seems much more text- and tweet-oriented while Brickflow is all about the photos and videos. Brickflow displays social media content in a playable slideshow while Storify presents the information in a more linear, story like format.

The approach to curation in Brickflow is similar to Storify, though, and is all hashtag-search based. (On that point, I make absolutely sure all beginning social media users understand the hashtag concept before moving on to tools, because it is so crucial for curation and other tools.)

Overall, Brickflow is easy to use and might appeal to student photographers a bit more than writers. After only using it once, I can envision a class assignment where I ask students to use it to curate a local news event, much like I would do with Storify. Of course, a part of the lesson would focus on the ethics of curation and a discussion of how curating a story relates to and differs from traditional reporting of a story.

Overall, I like both programs and intend to experiment more with Brickflow as I show it to students. Here’s a look at my first piece, known as a “flow.”

How I used Breaking Bad to engage students on Twitter

First, my confession: I’ve never watched Breaking Bad. And I live in Albuquerque, where the show was shot and where everyone except me has seen every minute of every episode of every show. Don’t tell my neighbors. Or my students.

But I have watched enough being written about Breaking Bad to know it had a grip on our city like nothing else. I wondered how I could harness that interest for my own journalism education purposes.

For a few years, I’ve used Twitter with moderate success to engage students on the finer points of journalism. I will admit here to the occasional tweet about National Punctuation Day, because I heard somewhere that embracing your inner nerdiness is coming back in style. I am here to say that’s not true.

What I needed was something that captured my journalism students’ attention just like the show. I needed something they were interested in enough to have a conversation about. Something they couldn’t stop talking about. But it had to be about journalism, or at least kind of related to journalism. Turns out the answer was the show.

I got lucky with Breaking Bad. Yes, pop culture and journalism education intersected one day when a local teacher (and if you watch the show you know there’s a teacher as a key protagonist) paid to place an ad in the Albuquerque Journal. The ad was an obit for Walter White, a key character in the show as everyone but me knows. The “obit” did not appear in the obits section, but rather in the news section, along with other ads you expect to see in any local newspaper. It was not marked as a paid ad, but it was in the paper the same day a local reporter wrote a story about the teacher taking out the ad.

That caught my attention. How many other “obits” have run in newspapers about television characters? (I ask that in all seriousness, please email me if you’ve seen one.)

Curious as to what had happened behind the scenes, I tweeted a question to see if anyone at the paper would explain. I got linked back to the story the reporter had written, but not much insight on whether there had been a debate on the issue. I then tweeted this question: #lobocamp students: what do you think of an obit for a tv character in a newspaper? Raises interesting, new questions. #breakingbad #BrBaABQ. (#lobocamp is a hashtag I use with my students; the #breakingbad and #BrBaABQ are used by fans of the show.)

Pretty soon, students engaged. Some would have run it, some wouldn’t have. Others would have labeled it as an ad. I heard from students who don’t speak much in class, and who typically tweet about other topics. Bingo. We even talked about the topic in class later that week.

So for my colleagues who sometimes ask how they can use Twitter as a classroom tool, the lesson I took away from this was to simply find something students care about and relate it back to your topic, even if that link is a bit tangential. I can see now that most students weren’t going to retweet or respond to my thoughts on bad headlines or grammar or newspaper correction policies, try as I may. But a crazy show that has propped up the local economy with blue donuts and meth “candy”? Absolutely.

I say all this with some heartburn, as I want my students to care more about compound modifiers and multimedia projects than t.v. drama. But I’ll take the successes where I can.

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.