“Do you know of any standards for content of live tweets?” a commenter asked on my blog recently.
“I have students live tweet meetings and speeches. Would love some specific guidelines for what makes a good tweet,” asked Michele Day, who teaches journalism at Northern Kentucky University.
I know of no such standards. And if I did, I’d probably react that “standards” for a developing pursuit such as live-tweeting might be a bit rigid. This is a new technique and we are learning about it as we do it. I don’t want standards to inhibit our development and experimentation with the technique. My standards would be the standards of good reporting: Be accurate, fair, interesting and engaging.
But I’m happy to offer some live-tweeting suggestions:
- Read some live-tweeting before you try it. Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle is a veteran courtroom live-tweeter. Patricia Doxsey of the Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y., did a great job of live-tweeting a trial this summer. I linked to several sports liveblogs using Twitter in my recent Friday Night Tweets post. Who are some favorite live-tweeting reporters you follow, covering city council meetings, political speeches and the like? Update: Thanks to Ron Sylvester for his tips in the comment below.
- When you start live-tweeting an event, say specifically where you are and what the event is.
- Describe your location and circumstances: whether you are at the event, watching on TV, curating social media (as Andy Carvin does with tweets about the Arab Spring uprisings), back in the newsroom fielding reports from multiple journalists, whatever.
- Do your reporting in advance of the event, getting the correct spellings of the names of key figures. Gather agenda and key reports if it’s a meeting, a program if it’s a sporting event, etc. (And when something comes up during the event that you didn’t check in advance, get the correct spelling before tweeting, either by asking or by checking online.)
- Tell followers that you’re live-tweeting, offering a good-natured warning/apology to regular followers who won’t be interested (but will notice the heavy stream of tweets).
- Don’t feel the need to transcribe the whole event. Tweet important or interesting quotes, actions, developments, observations, crowd reactions.
- Keep the 5 W’s and How in mind. Not that you need to cram them all into your first tweet or any tweet. But you should cover them. And you probably want to cover Who, What, When and Where pretty early (Why and How sometimes unfold later or be in dispute, especially at a trial). Each of those first four W’s, for instance, might be the point of an early tweet.
- If you’re attending in person, use your senses to give your readers a feeling for the atmosphere and the place.
- Use a hashtag. If the event already has a hashtag, use that one rather than trying to launch your own. The ideal hashtag is short, catchy, unique and easy to understand. A pretty good hashtag will have some of those features.
- Check the hashtag occasionally to see who else might be live-tweeting. You might want to acknowledge that person with a retweet or reply. Check also with a keyword search or two to see if there’s a second hashtag in use, or someone tweeting without a hashtag (you could alert him or her to your tweets and note the hashtag).
- Mix play-by-play with commentary (if commentary is appropriate for your role in your newsroom).
- Attribute each tweet that is passing along a speaker’s information or viewpoint. Though you hope people will read the stream, some tweets will be read by themselves, and you want at least the last name to indicate that you are covering a speaker.
- Use quotation marks when quoting directly.
- Provide related links when appropriate.
- Take (and tweet links to) photos and/or videos.
- Don’t be in such a hurry to tweet that you don’t check the facts first (numbers, names and autocorrects especially). Confession: I failed on this last weekend, tweeting the wrong score of a football game I was watching on TV.
- You will hear statements that may be lies or innocent errors. Don’t just parrot what you hear. Be a skeptical journalist. Carvin does a great job of asking his tweeps to help him vet and verify what he’s tweeting, asking for the source or the context or raising hard questions. Remember that a journalist’s most important question is “How do you know that?” My friend Rosalie Stemer adds a valuable follow-up question: “How else do you know that?” Sometimes you should tweet the questionable information and ask the tweeps to help you challenge or verify, as Carvin does. Other times you should hold back a purported fact until you can verify (or refute) it. It’s OK to pause the live-tweeting for a quick conversation with a source in the room who may be able to verify, or to do some quick online research. It’s even OK to hold that point back for a later story that you report more fully. This is an example of why I don’t want standards. My own standards a year ago would have said something like “Don’t tweet rumors you haven’t confirmed.” But Carvin is showing that you can find the truth quickly sometimes by tweeting the unconfirmed report and asking the tough question openly, finding the confirmation from the crowd (or the help in debunking). It may not feel right at first, and it’s certainly risky, but it meets the first point of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it.
- When you’re going to have a significant pause in the live tweeting, note that (court has recessed for lunch; it’s halftime; you’re trying to nail down an important fact). If you’re spinning an effective narrative, you will be building interest and suspense. People are waiting for your next tweet, so let them know you’re taking a break. You don’t always have to explain; the break might be because you’re going to the restroom, and a pause for a few minutes is fine.
- Check your @ mentions occasionally and answer questions tweeps are asking. Be sure to thank those who are retweeting you (though you can do that after the event or during a lull).
- Some events aren’t worth a steady play-by-play stream. A few scene-setting tweets, a few highlights and some wrap-up tweets may be all this event needs.
- Don’t overlook the amusing or interesting interludes (a wise crack, a distraction, a mini-drama within the broader story, the ripple of excitement during a break in the trial that one of the lawyers has a new grandchild). These can provide fun details and welcome breaks from the narrative stream.
- Don’t limit your audience just to people on Twitter. Put the tweets on your website by feeding them live into a Twitter widget or a CoverItLive liveblog or by curating them later using Storify. Be sure to tweet links to the web version, in case someone would prefer to follow that way.
- If your web coverage includes a video livestream, be sure to tweet a link to that (and suggest that your tweets get added to that page).
- Craig Kanalley offered this great advice in his tips for live tweeting an event (which I recommend reading): “When writing your tweets, picture an editor looking over your shoulder, continuously chopping off unnecessary words to make it more concise. Keep them as short as possible and only include the most pertinent info.”
- Don’t be anchored to one place. Except in a few situations such as a courtroom, you can get up to ask a question, check a fact, get a different perspective. In fact, in tweeting a breaking news story, you might tweet from multiple locations and as you’re walking from one location to another (best not to tweet and drive; you won’t do your best job of either).
- Consider the right tool for live-tweeting. If you are at a press table covering a meeting or game, a laptop might be ideal. If you’re on the sidelines at a high school football game or moving around a festival or covering a breaking news story, a cell phone might be best. A tablet might work in either case.
- In the hashtag, the liveblog and in your Twitter stream, the tweets are going to string together as a single story, an unfolding narrative whose story arc, particularly the climax, you may not know until you reach it (or later). But be aware that it is a narrative. Use narrative techniques such as setting, plot and character where you can.
- On the other hand, some people are just going to read tweets on their own. In 140 characters, you’re not going to make every tweet stand perfectly on its own. But when you can’t write a tweet with some sense of independence, be sure to include attribution or a hashtag, alerting the reader to the broader context.
- Use the tweets as your notes if you’re writing a story later. Live-tweeting and taking thorough notes probably won’t work well together unless you’re an excellent multi-tasker. Cutting and pasting quotes and some narration from your tweets will actually make the writing go quicker. But have a notebook (or digital device for notes) handy, because you may want to note some questions you will need to address in reporting after the event.
- If you are writing a separate story, maybe you can crowdsource some of the writing decisions. Ask the people who have been following on Twitter what seemed the most important or interesting points to them. Or, if you’re weighing two approaches for your lead, test them both with your tweeps. If you write a great tweet during the event and think that might make a good lead, ask your tweeps right then whether they agree.
- After you’ve live-tweeted an event, especially your first few, critique your work. Did you get in too much of a rush and tweet with some typos or errors (or just not make much sense)? Did you get on a roll where you really liked your rhythm and were sending out a compelling narrative? Try to recall what you were doing at that point, so you can try to do it again sometime. Did you remember to use the hashtag? Make some notes to help you the next time you live-tweet.
Those are some of my live-tweeting tips? Do you have some tips to share with Michele and her students?