Social media for journalists: The basics

bySam BerkheadSep 01 in Social Media

It’s been more than a decade since the first social media sites hit the web, but perfecting the art of maintaining a strong social media presence is still a challenge. This is especially true for journalists, who are often too focused on their own reporting to tweet — not to mention the pressures of newsroom social media guidelines.

That’s why it’s never a bad idea to brush up on the basics, even if you’re a self-described digital native. Here’s a guide to using some of the most popular social platforms for journalists — Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat:

Facebook

With 2 billion users per month, Facebook is easily the world’s most popular social media platform, which makes indispensable for journalists and news organizations.

To start growing a following, you can either create a page, which is separate from your personal profile, or enable the Follow feature on your personal profile. Whichever you choose, Facebook recommends using authentic photos for your profile and cover photos. And last but not least, be sure to secure your account.

Once your page or profile is all set up, you can start publishing breaking news updates, sharing behind-the-scenes content, starting conversations and more with your readers. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Facebook itself has published a guide to its platform for journalists which includes courses developed with Poynter and a safety guide. We also like Journalism.co.uk’s guide.

Facebook Live

Facebook Live, Facebook’s live-streaming feature, lets any user broadcast video from their mobile phones to their friends or followers. Users who watch Live broadcasts can “react” to the live-stream and leave comments for the broadcaster to respond to.

One of the most important things to remember when using Facebook Live is that it shouldn’t be used the same way you’d use a video camera in a traditional broadcast setting. Users on Facebook aren’t as likely to tune in to live broadcasts where talking heads sit around a table without any other action taking place. The more organic your broadcast, the more users will generally respond and engage.

Some other best practices, courtesy of ICFJ Knight Fellow Shaheryar Popalzai, who worked with Pakistan’s Geo News to make Facebook Live a regular part of the newsroom’s workflow:

  1. Find a location where the internet works

  2. Plan content ahead of time

  3. Avoid broadcasts longer than an hour

  4. Write a good caption

  5. Invest in good equipment

  6. Consider broadcasting software

  7. Try using Facebook Live for newsgathering

NPR and Poynter have also created useful guides to using Facebook Live.

Twitter

Twitter has become the social platform of choice for many journalists thanks to its chronological timeline of quick, 140-character bursts of information that instantly lends itself to breaking news situations. It’s also great for engaging with your readers and crowdsourcing new story ideas.

Today, journalists use Twitter to share links to their work and what they’re reading. They also use it to offer commentary and context to the day’s news stories. It allows you to develop your own unique voice and brand, putting a human face behind your byline.

If you’re just creating an account, you’ll want to create a username that’s short, memorable and catchy. Start following accounts of fellow journalists and news outlets who you find interesting. When you’re ready to go, start tweeting! Accounts that tweet regularly do best. For definitions of everything from hashtags to mentions, click here.

While maintaining a consistent, on-brand Twitter presence is undoubtedly important, remember that your potential audience is ultimately much smaller than that of Facebook, especially outside the U.S. Twitter trolls and harassment are also a problem, particularly for women journalists. But at its best, Twitter is one of the best ways to spread and amplify the news as it happens.

For more on using Twitter, check out the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Twitter tutorial and NewsWhip's top eight tips for journalists.

Snapchat

A growing number of journalists are using Snapchat as a storytelling tool, particularly the #mojo community of mobile journalists. The app is famous for allowing its users to send “snaps,” or 10-second photos or videos, to friends. After 10 seconds, the snap disappears forever.

Journalists can get the most use out of Snapchat Stories, which allow you to publish a series of snaps that your followers can view for 24 hours. Journalists have used Snapchat Stories to cover everything from the refugee crisis to the sexual abuse epidemic in India.

“Some people find Snapchat really difficult because it's a linear story,” Yusuf Omar, senior social reporter for CNN, told IJNet last year. “That's perhaps the greatest challenge: teaching people to storyboard, because as you know, one shot slots in after the other. You have to have a fundamental understanding of your start, middle and end. It's actually quite ironic, because you're actually going back to television-style storytelling techniques to pull off a really good Snapchat story.”

Facebook and Instagram have piggybacked off Snapchat with their own “story” features; using either of these might be a more efficient way to reach your readers depending on where you have the most followers.

One of Snapchat’s most recent updates introduced Snap Map, which shows users where their friends are located, as well as thermal maps of where large groups of people are uploading content to the app. Anything from a concert or sporting event to a protest or demonstration will show up, allowing you to discover breaking news stories as they happen.

But if you’re working in a sensitive environment, Snap Map could be more of a liability than anything, since it reveals your location to anyone who has added you. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to opt out of the feature. Just open up your Snap Map, go to Settings and activate Ghost Mode.

In conclusion

Social media truly revolutionized the way journalists report and tell stories. It’s a priceless resource that offers nearly endless amounts of information — and it can be easy to lose yourself in the noise. As a result, remembering to give yourself a break every once in awhile is a must.

“Being careful about the way we consume social media is important for journalists too,” Liz Plank, senior producer and correspondent at Vox.com, told IJNet. “You might feel like this journalist is killing it, they’re everywhere … But on social media, you’re not going to talk about all the things that are negative, only positive, so it’s important to remember that.”

Further reading

This guide just covers the very basics of what you can do with social media. If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend these resources:

The BBC Academy's social media section

NPR’s Social Media Desk: From 2013 to 2016, the Social Media Desk at NPR lived on Tumblr; the team now covers its experiments on its Medium page.

Swedish Radio’s social media handbook for journalists

Facebook's guide for journalists using its platform