Twitter is changing news. Today many major news stories break on Twitter long before TV, radio and newspapers are able to cover them. And increasingly journalists are reporting live from the sidelines of major events putting readers in the know hours before many of them will even think of buying a newspaper.
At the forefront of this new reportage is “live tweeting”, the process of providing readers with up-to-the-minute updates on news events as they unfold. Anyone can live tweet an event (that’s the beauty of social media) but to be truly effective, live tweeting needs to be engaging, informative and, ideally, retweetable. There are no definitive rules for live tweeting but there are many things worth bearing in mind. Here are a few of those:
Before you start
- Read other people’s live tweets before you try it yourself. Consider what works best for them. There are many journalists that regularly live tweet events, including Daily Maverick’s Phillip de Wet and Carien du Plessis, The Star’s Kristen van Schie, Business Day’s Sam Mkokeli, and EWN’s Mandy Weiner and Alex Alisieev. Take a look at breaking news hashtags for other examples.
- Do the legwork before hitting the scene (assuming you have the time). If it’s a court case get the correct names (and spellings) of all the participants, get agendas for meetings, historical facts for major sporting events. Have these handy to include in your tweets for context.
- Decide how you are going to tweet. On your mobile phone? From a laptop? Mobile phones work in most contexts but if you can do it from a laptop (at a conference for example) you’ll find it easier to manage.
- Tell followers ahead of time that you’re going to be live tweeting an event. This is useful for those that are interested, and fair warning for those that aren’t.
- Not everything is worth live tweeting. Decide if an event is worth covering in this depth so that you don’t bore followers with boring second-by-second coverage of lesser important events.
On the scene
- When you start live tweeting an event provide details of where you are, what the event is and (where appropriate) who is involved in the event. Don’t forget the Who, What, Where, Why and How that are the stock in trade of journalists.
- Let followers know your circumstances. Are you on the scene, watching coverage on TV, sitting at the newsdesk curating colleagues’ tweets?
- Don’t regurgitate every single minute of the event. Find the highlights, the lighter moments, the resolutions, the disputes and tweet those.
- Remember that it’s unlikely that your followers will be following each and every one of your tweets. Ensure there is enough context and information in all your tweets to make them useful and understandable when read in isolation. Simply tweeting “Bail denied” from a court case makes no sense to followers that haven’t seen your previous tweets.
- Use a #hashtag on all your tweets. It adds context and makes it easier for followers to catch up if they’ve come in late. Make the hashtag short so you don’t waste valuable space (and time) typing it. If there is already an event-specific hashtag use that and don’t make up your own.
- Do a search (of terms or hashtags) to see who else is live tweeting an event. If appropriate retweet them to add extra detail or simply acknowledge they are there.
Getting it right
- Always be clear on who is being quoted in your tweets. Opinions from participants in the event should be clearly attributed to them.
- Direct quotes should be enclosed in inverted commas.
- Provide links to photos, videos or related content to give context to your tweets.
- Always check facts and spellings. Never be too rushed to get the basics right.
- Auto-correct on mobile phones can mangle the simplest of tweets. Re-read your tweet before posting it to avoid errors and potentially embarrassing gobbledygook.
- Correct facts immediately. If you make a mistake don’t wait until it has been spread widely before you make a correction. Include corrections in your Twitter stream. Mark the correction clearly.
- Be critical. Don’t’ just automatically tweet what you hear, especially rumours from participants or bystanders. Does what you’re hearing sound right? Is it suspect? Who is saying it? How reliable are they? Sometimes it’s useful to take some time out to check facts before tweeting them. At other times it’s worth tweeting the information but making it clear that it is unconfirmed, or even asking if followers can confirm the information.
- Keep tweets short. Obviously there is already a space constraint on tweets of 140 characters but do your best to keep well within that limit. Cut out unnecessary words to make tweets easier to read.
- Speak English. Occasionally you may need to abbreviate a word to get the information in but avoid abbreviating every word so that it resembles text speak rather than English.
Not just the facts
- Provide a sense of place: the tension at a protest march, the sentiment in a court room, the excitement of a sports event.
- Intersperse commentary with developing facts. Commentary may not be encouraged by your news organisation but if allowed then occasional commentary by you adds colour to your live tweets.
- When there is a lull in proceedings tell followers what is going on: half time in a football match, lunch break in court or at a meeting. Tell followers when you expect to be back.
- Intersperse facts and details with lighthearted moments, a joke from a judge, a comment on the outrageous suit of a minister, a response from a crowd member. Adding in these lighter moments can liven up a narrative stream.
- If the event is long it may be worth occasionally updating followers as to where you are and what’s happened so far.
- Take time to check your @ mentions and answer questions that followers have. Don’t ignore feedback from followers, especially questions which you can answer. That’s part of your job as a journalist to inform readers.
- See what others are saying on Twitter about the event and consider retweeting some of those to add in missing details, colour.
- Move around. If you’re at an event don’t just sit in one place, move around to find new reactions, ask different questions, find new bystanders.
- If you are aggregating your tweets on your blog, your newspaper’s website or elsewhere, provide a link for followers who would prefer to follow the stream there. This is also useful for followers that want to catch up.
- After the event review your live tweet stream. Critique it. Did you get it right? Were there moments when you got flustered and made errors? Were there times when you got into a rhythm? What could you do better?
- Above all, have fun. Live tweeting is one of many fantastic new tools that journalists now have to tell stories and engage with readers. Experiment with it, try different things, find out what works for you and what doesn’t.
Note: This post was heavily inspired and influenced by an excellent earlier post by Steve Buttry on live tweeting. Thank you Steve.