Teaching Tweeting

Despite the environment’s connection to every challenge we face, increasing environmental awareness is an uphill battle. The way to make the information relevant is to make it personal.

How many words does it take to change the world? This question underpins my work at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where I teach courses on sustainability, diversity, and environmental communications, and likely makes some of my more conventional colleagues squirm.  Tasked with bringing the newsroom into the classroom, I entered into the school directly from work as a professional environmental journalist. Despite the environment’s connection to every challenge we face, increasing environmental awareness is an uphill battle because our natural world regularly slips from public consciousness. The way to make the information relevant, I learned, was to make it personal.

I believe that our voices matter—and that we should own our voices rather than trying to present ourselves as dispassionate and unbiased. Our worldviews are revealed in the stories we pitch, the subjects we choose to interview, the questions we pose, the quotes we include—and the ones we leave out. This is, in part, what makes some of my colleagues squirm and this is, in part, why I herald the rise of participatory media.

I use the term “participatory,” rather than “social” because that is truly what it is. Storytellers without access to the hallowed ground of media’s Fourth Estate now have collaborative spaces in which to share information. Important stories that serve the public interest—but are often eclipsed by flashier pieces—now have unprecedented opportunities for visibility. The news is no longer mediated by Wolf Blitzers or Greta Van Susterens. It is available straight from sources who live and breathe stories as they unfold—as nearby as Joplin, as far off as Tahrir Square. An abstract piece on plastics pollution in the ocean comes to life via a personal blog, a local revolution becomes global through a handful of texted characters.

More from Metropolis

These efforts do not and cannot take the place of a 3,000-word investigative report—nor are they meant to. But they should not be dismissed. Microblogging platforms like Twitter are now an integral platform for diffusion of information. A few words can  change the way we see and respond to the world.

I do not have a degree in journalism—nor do I believe said degree is a requisite for solid reporting. But I do believe in the tenets of accuracy, transparency, fairness, integrity and a commitment to serving the public interest. Journalists play a crucial role in not only defining these standards and ensuring they are maintained, but also in raising the bar for citizen journalists to do the same. Interactive media generates circular, rather than linear, flows of information—what NPR’s supervising senior producer for multimedia Keith Jenkins calls “conversation, not presentation.” In the 24-hour news cycle, these flows are more like floods. Journalists help us make sense of these torrents by curating and providing context for what’s essential.  But all this is possible only if we train journalists—and journalism students—to do so.

And that is why I teach tweeting.  Digital platforms are not going away. Rather than eschewing or dismissing them, I ensure that my students are equipped to use the platforms as tools of the trade and to understand these multiple streams of information can make them better journalists and more informed citizens.

My first experiment with Twitter as a reporting platform happened about one year ago. I was charged by my dean to “take students off campus,” and decided to develop a service-learning environmental reporting course in Oakland, CA that would simulate a variety of scenarios under which tweeting could be used for journalistic purposes (and highlight the rise of the green collar economy). The tweets started off in the classroom under the hashtag #KUJ500, and culminated with a live feed on the sustainability Web site Triple Pundit using the hashtag #greenjobsKU.

In the classroom, students tweeted lectures to develop a sense of how to navigate the balance between listening and speaking (tweeting).  After each class, I reviewed our Twitter feed and gave students feedback on their tweet reports (short analyses assessing the efficacy of their tweets and detailing what they might do differently in future).  The feedback, however, was reciprocal. By reviewing their tweets, I learned, nearly in real-time, how my lectures were received: what information stuck, what sparked curiosity, and what was dismissed.

The strength of tweets and voices of student reporters emerged through repetition. This kind of journalism can only be learned—and improved—by doing. With each successive tweet, information became more nuanced. Initially, the tweet was a straight 140 character statement, but later—as I had hoped—it became the prologue to a bigger story, replete with images, hyperlinks, and deeper insight. (Over time and through multiple processes of trial and error, I refined the number of tweets required and developed a rubric. I am now creating a “how-to” primer and refining that rubric to more accurately reflect the role of social media in quality journalism.)

The query Twitter poses is, “What’s happening?” This, to me, is its greatest journalistic utility. The character limitation, ability to connect to large audiences, and immediacy of the medium are best suited to the documentation of breaking news. I could not simulate a breaking story but was able to have students document an event over time, as we completed—and tweeted—a solar panel installation on low-income housing. (You can read more about that course and process in this Metropolis piece.)

This year’s environmental reporting class focused on water conservation and water justice as the students completed a greywater installation and authored a series of multimedia posts and tweets for Metropolis. The class’ efforts are best described by former student Bryan Dykman (pictured here): “I think I’ve come to realize that the point of service learning is to help out communities. Sure, I think I knew that already. But in a larger picture, I now see that just the process of me going to California, working. . ., tweeting, photographing, and shooting video has left a digital trail so that others might follow in our footsteps.

It’s one thing to say I went to California on break, but only keep the memories in my head or buried in some photo album. It’s another thing altogether to leave a trail so that other tweeters and students and environmental buffs can see what we are doing and perhaps get inspired to help out and follow our digital lead.”

It is this digital lead of which I am most proud.

Simran Sethi’s journalism classes at the University of Kansas teach the communication of complex issues via social networking. This is the culmination of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice, using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry. Follow her on Twitter @SimranSethi.

Recent Projects