When a dam that held millions of cubic yards of toxic coalash near Harriman, Tenn., broke a few days before Christmas 2008, no one paid much attention other than those immediately affected by it and the local media. The disaster was epic -- compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.
But it was Christmas and the country was in the throes of an economic crisis and the transition of a new president. And no one was killed.
But a few people were paying attention, and that made a difference. Amy Gahran, an independent media consultant in Boulder, Colo., and editor of the group blog E-Media Tidbits for Poynter.org, wondered what was going on. She's also a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Two days after the disaster, she wrote this for Poynter:
When I first learned of this disaster from SEJ colleagues by e-mail this morning (, I immediately launched the Twitter hashtag #coalash. Off and on today I've been posting links to news, context, background, opinion, resources, maps, and multimedia related to this unfolding story. Even EPA's Web manager, Jeffrey Levine, was tweeting relevant EPA maps and facility info.
Other Twitter users, including several Tenn.-area news orgs, adopted the hashtag. This made it easier for people to find and follow their coverage. Using a hashtag provides a broader view that includes local news coverage and extends beyond it. At the same time, a hashtag can amplify the reach of local stories. Online, this reach becomes especially crucial in the absence of delayed or absent mainstream national news coverage.
Once the buzz started on Twitter -- and came together through Gahran's hashtag -- news media from outside the East Tennessee area began paying attention and the story began to garner the international attention it deserved.
This story, and many others like it, amply demonstrate the power of Twitter as a journalistic device.
Once thought to be nothing more than an interpersonal communications trivial pursuit, Twitter has become an important information tool that can help journalists gather information and can also provide a means of distributing journalism to an interested audience.
What is Twitter
Twitter is a way an individual can connect with people who share the same interests and inclinations. An individual registers for an account on Twitter.com and selects a username. The individual can provide other information for a profile, but this is optional. The key thing is that the individual begins to contribute what, in Twitterland, are called "tweets."
In addition to the tweets, the individual can also begin to "follow" other users of Twitter; that is, the person finds other persons and begins to get a list of their tweets on his or her Twitter page.
As an individual contributes more tweets, he or she will attract "followers." These can start with friends and family, but if the tweets are at all interesting, follwers will show up whom the individual does not know.
This is just the beginning. There are many other aspects to Twitter, many of them outlined in this excellent article by Ellyn Angelotti.
But the big factor in Twitter is brevity. You have only 140 characters (letters, punctuation and spaces) to say what you have to say. That's usually between 10 and 15 words.
Writing a Tweet
Once you are on Twitter and are following a few people, read a page or two of tweets. You will get a sense of what is there and how people use it. You will be attracted, repelled, fascinated, confused -- and possibly even appalled. Remember that when you write a tweet, the people following you may have those same reactions, so begin deciding right away what kind of personality you want to form.
As a journalist writing for Twitter, you are trying to inform the people who are following you. But, remember too that as one of twitters, you are part of an ongoing conversation, and you should feel free to react to what others have said as well as introducing original information into the conversation.
Here are some things to think about and some guidelines:
- What's the point? Why are you posting? Have a goal in mind. Understand how you want people to feel when they have read you post.
- Information is more important, and interesting, than opinion.
- One or two points (of information, opinion, whatever) max. Not three. You'll quickly use up your space.
- Think: subjects and verbs. Complete sentences are not always necessary, but complete thoughts are.
- Emphasize verbs. Active, descriptive verbs. It's one of the basic truths of good writing.
- As in headline writing, "to be" verbs can be understood rather than written.
- Drop articles (a, an and the) unless they are necessary for clarity.
- Punctuate for clarity, not necessarily just to follow the rules.
- Same thing goes for AP style. Often AP style rules will help with brevity, but sometimes they don't.
- Use abbreviations only if you are sure your audience will immediately understand them. Don't use them just to show that you're hip to techno lingo.
- Don't be afraid to direct your tweets to individual users. Done correctly, this can help build your audience.
- Maintain a sense of professionalism. Using profanity and scatological language may give you a sense of coolness about yourself, but it's also likely to lose you followers. (On the day I wrote this, I stopped following an acquaintance for just this reason.)
- Ask and ye shall receive. One of the great things about Twitter (and the web in general) is that there are people ready to respond, particularly if what you want is reasonable and interesting. A well-formed question will attract responses and followers.
- Respect. Respect the language, your audience and yourself. Honesty, courtesy, modesty and civility are values in the Twitter society. Strive for them.
Amy Gahran: Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos
Step-by-step -- getting onto Twitter and making the most of it, from a major league Twitterer.
Terrance Ward: Using Hashtags for Organization in Twitter: Options for Making Microblogging Posts Ready for Viral Retweeting | January 5, 2009 | A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by the pound sign (#). Twitter, the pioneer microblogging service, saw its visitors quintuple in 2008. With so many more posts (or “tweets,” as they’re called on the site) being made, users are developing ways to organize and track the information meaningfully.
Craig Stoltz: How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor | Web2.0h...Really? | May 27, 2008 Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.
Margarent Mason: Writing My Twitter Etiquette Article: 14 Ways to Use Twitter Politely | The Morning News | August 15, 2008 Some good thoughts about how to use Twitter appropriately by Margaret Mason.
Ellyn Angelotti: JournoTweeting | Poynter Institute | This excellent article by Ellyn Angelotti takes you through Twitter step by step and then tells you how a journalist should be using it. Lots of links and good advice