The micro-blogging platform Twitter was the breakthrough social media tool for journalists in 2008. It became a pipeline for breaking news for both professional reporters and citizen journalists, with the massacre in Mumbai, the Hudson River plane crash and Obama’s inauguration highlighting its effectiveness as a source of live, user-generated online content.

Journalists increasingly used it to cross-promote their own stories, comment on others, and connect with contacts outside their usual silos. Ultimately, mainstream media outlets from the New York Times to the BBC adopted it as a news feed service for story dissemination, and even journalism academics began joining the Twitter conversation. The potential of the platform as a vehicle for journalism education also became apparent when I began implementing it as an event-coverage training tool for my journalism students during a regional Australian election.

So, while Barack Obama tweeted his way through an historic U.S. election, my University of Canberra radio journalism students used Twitter as a political reporting device for live online election coverage. This resulted in both improved speed and clarity in writing as well as a breakthrough engagement with democratic processes and political journalism by a generation of student reporters frequently cast as disengaged and averse to political news.

Joining the Twittersphere

For those of you who’ve managed to escape the recent media attention devoted to Twitter, a working definition: It’s an interactive facility based on the open publication of messages 140 characters long. Instead of finding “friends,” you accumulate “followers.” Twitter identifies itself as “a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” It could also be described as a public sphere form of instant messaging, a global open chat room or, as I tweeted when I first joined the network in February 2008, “Isn’t Twitter just Facebook status updates on steroids?” The language of Twitter describes users as “twits” or “tweeters” and the updates as “tweets” — appropriately evocative of chirping birds. (MediaShift also has published a guide to Twitter.)

Yes, I was skeptical about Twitter at first. Some of my ex-students convinced me to try it out and I later felt compelled to tweet with greater regularity when people began following my updates, but I frankly didn’t see the point. Then I watched a fellow journalism academic tweet an international communications conference in Stockholm last July, and it finally clicked. Twitter is a great way to note-take in instantly publishable form, making it perfect for live-blogging events. It’s also reminiscent of radio news reporting which requires journalists to file headlines, or what are often known as “news briefs,” from the field for instant broadcast.

Twitter is, I think, the closest a text-based form of journalism comes to a “live cross” — a long-standing feature of broadcast journalism where a reporter files content, unfiltered, live to air. And that’s how I started to use the platform — as a way to publish news briefs from events I was observing or participating in, to share links to stories that infuriated or delighted me, to share entertaining life moments and Haiku poetry, to communicate about journalism issues with like minds (and those with alternative perspectives) around the globe, to connect with new people from within my industry and, increasingly, as a first base for news headline consumption from my favored sources. Ultimately, Twitter displaced my RSS feeds and demanded my daily attention. Beware folks, it’s highly addictive!

Tweeting an Oz election

My J-school is situated in Australia’s national capital, Canberra. It’s only a few miles from the seat of federal government and the elite Australian media hub that is the Canberra Press Gallery. At the University of Canberra, we have a reputation for producing job-ready journalism graduates with a capacity for original story-generation and critical thinking abilities but, like many journalism educators, we’ve found engaging Gen Y students in political reporting activities to be a challenge.

However, my background as a former member of the Canberra Press Gallery helps me persevere with the struggle and seek innovative and appealing ways to engage my students in political journalism. In the past, I’ve taken them to the Tally Room on national election nights to produce radio news reports for a community radio network as the vote counting unfolded. And when the regional Canberra elections were announced last year, I was keen to do something similar. But time-constraints, logistical difficulties and security concerns made setting up an election-night post in the Canberra Tally Room for our online student publication NOWUC impossible.

Nevertheless, I managed to secure permission from the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government for 12 of my students to join the media throng in the Tally Room’s live broadcast center under my supervision. We were allowed to bring recording equipment into the arena to cover the event, but we were told we would not have access to desk space or Internet connectivity. So, instead, I turned to Twitter and mobile phones.

Getting the Students Twitter-Ready

I devoted one radio production class to training the students on the finer points of Twitter and getting them registered to use the platform. I first established a Twitter account connected to NOWUC (I’m the administrator of this Twitter page) to host the collective tweets on election night. I then got each of the participating students to create their own individual accounts, connecting them to their mobiles. The next step involved getting them to follow me, NOWUC and one another. I, in turn, connected my own accounts to theirs by following them.

Next, I devised traditional radio reporting assignments and allocated them to the students for election night coverage, with a view to producing and uploading longer form audio reports to NOWUC in the days following the election. Attempts to embed the Twitter feed to the NOWUC site failed, but we did install a link to the @NOWUC Twitter page which gave the main website the appearance of having a dynamic role in the election coverage process.

Interestingly, none of the students involved had used Twitter before and only a few were even familiar with its existence. Most, however, were Facebook addicts, and the idea of using a social media platform for journalistic purposes excited them. In fact, I saw news value just in the novelty of this reporting task, so I assigned some students to cover this Canberra election student tweet-a-thon as a story in itself. Challenge #1 — getting the students interested in political reporting — had been achieved, with the help of Twitter.

Election Night

Challenge #2 was election night itself, October 18, 2008. The plan went like this: Each student was assigned a Tweet Beat in the tally room. Some were attached to government desks, and some were dispatched to the Opposition parties’ representatives. Others mingled with the voting public who’d gathered to watch the action, and the remainder stalked the main media outlets in the broadcast hub or went in search of “color.”

They were told to tag each of their tweets with #ACTelection08, using a hashtag so they could be aggregated by Twitter’s search function. Each of the students was then paired in a traditional radio reporting duo to undertake their broadcast production assignments and they alternated between roles as tweeters and broadcast journalists.

I had toyed with the possibility of getting the students to value-add their tweets with photos or even video generated by their phones (using Twitter applications like Twitpic) but decided to keep our first Twitter reporting exercise as simple as possible in the interests of both the speed of publication and the quality of learning.

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Some of the University of Canberra’s election tweeters

Challenges and Obstacles

The actual process of tweeting proved logistically tricky. Given the direct link to a University of Canberra sponsored publication, I needed to filter the tweets before aggregating them on the NOWUC Twitter page in the interests of legal and ethical propriety. This was also an important part of the educational process — teaching the students about the perils of live reporting. But this meant that I had to re-tweet (abbreviated as “RT”) each and every student post manually via my iPhone, on which I’d installed the Twitterific tool — one of several which works as an interface between Twitter and iPhones, avoiding the need to SMS posts. I edited the students’ tweets only very minimally so as to downplay the “gatekeeper” role and, thankfully, I only had to intercept one defamatory tweet. By the end of the night, I’d re-tweeted about 70 student news-briefs from the Tally Room via my phone and I had the Repetitive Strain Injury symptoms to prove it!

But there were other challenges as well. The students were using their personal phones to tweet, but the Twitter-based mobile phone interface available at the time required users to SMS posts to a UK number. That meant every Tweet counted as an international call and cost the student reporter approximately $1.50 in U.S. dollars. Many of my students are cash poor and some had only limited credit on their phones, so they needed to tweet frugally.

Twitter’s limit of 140 characters per post also posed significant journalistic challenges — restricting students’ capacity to use quotes and provide attributions and analysis, for example. Indeed, Twitter, like many social media applications, provides just as many opportunities for discussion on issues in journalistic ethics and practice as it does challenges to traditional news processes. I’ll explore these issues, along with questions surrounding Twitter’s use as an online “contact book” and pseudo wire service by the news media and citizen journos, in detail in my next post here on MediaShift.

Great Lessons Learned

The content of the NOWUC Twitter feed reveals the diversity of student experience, talents and the lessons learned. Some tweets were pithy and witty, full of colorful political observations, while others were heavily fact based, like a a seat-by-seat count of election results. Some were clunky, while others were good examples of clarity and brevity in writing. Some students tweeted prolifically, others were slower and less productive.

For some, the highlight was meeting prominent politicians and broadcasters, while for others it was breaking a news tidbit ahead of the mainstream media. Many learned something new about the Australian political process and picked up fresh reporting skills. But, most importantly, they all thoroughly enjoyed the learning experience, describing it variously as “awesome,” “a blast” and an “adrenalin rush.” Although, admittedly, the biggest thrill of the night for most was probably gaining access to the National Press Club, a traditional meeting place of politicians, journalists and political apparatchiks — where they continued to tweet the aftermath of the election, including the victor’s speech.

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Some of the lessons learned from this exercise included how to overcome the logistical obstacles outlined above. For example, I’ve since discovered a Twitter tool called Grouptweet which allows groups of connected users to post on a single Twitter page using a shared Twitter identity. This tool allows for public or private usage, meaning it can be locked down for training exercises or discussions about sensitive themes, or opened up to all comers for publication purposes, like the NOWUC Twitter election coverage.

Applying this tool in the election coverage scenario would have saved me from having to re-tweet all of my students’ posts to group them @NOWUC, but it wouldn’t have resolved the need to clear posts for legal and ethical reasons. As counterintuitive to social media principles as it sounds, a Twitter tool that allowed for a hold to be put on such group tweets until cleared by a “super user” or group editor would be useful and more appropriate for professional journalistic application.

Two of the student tweeters, Joe Sullivan and Michelle Fielding, produced a radio current affairs package about the role of Twitter in reporting and their experience covering the Canberra Tally Room.

“Our mission was to tweet…as the politics played out around us we were sent into a tweeting frenzy…We were embarking on a new journalistic dawn, competing against the traditional media outlets to break the news first,” they reported.

This great piece of student audio production highlights the value of the Twitter election coverage experiment as a journalism training exercise. From this lecturer’s perspective, the main benefits were in watching the students work as a reporting team, seeing their excitement as their tweets went “live,” their amusement with the novelty of reporting using mobiles and social media tools and their willingness to “mix it” with prominent mainstream journalists, along with their rising interest in political reporting as the night unfolded.

“This isn’t so boring after all!” they realized. Using these contemporary reporting tools helped bridge the gap between “digital natives” and traditional political reporting. And, it’s a lesson worth repeating.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.