Social Media in the Classroom
One of the most important aspects of any news story is the lead. It is often the most difficult for beginning news writers to learn to master. It must be well-written, compelling and capture the reader’s attention. The Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan said a good lead beckons, invites, informs, attracts and entices the reader. If there is any poetry in journalism, Scanlan added, it would have to be in the lead. However, writing a lead that truly captivates a reader can be a daunting task, even for an experienced writer.
Because lead writing can be such a daunting task, I decided to step outside of the traditional classroom paradigm and use Twitter as a tool to teach students how to write leads. The micro-blogging, social network has been an excellent platform for showing students how to use words effectively. Twitter’s 140 character limitation has been a very good model to help students critically analyze how to structure the lead with precision and maximize storytelling in a few words.
Using the Hashtag #TwitterNewsChat, students posted leads daily during the semester. The Hashtag grouped the leads on Twitter into a real-time designated section and was required to be included in the Tweet [Twitter’s 140 character post]. See exhibit I.
The students’ leads were generated from stories that they covered on campus, community beats and current events. Some of those stories were about Texas Southern University’s NASA center, the theater department’s production of Westside Story and the School of Communication’s Intercultural Communication Conference and the midterm elections.
The students also developed enterprise stories. The enterprise story was one in which the student cultivated from a specialized topic. One such topic the students focused on during the semester was the Houston Area Women Center’s Sexual Assault Awareness campaign. The center used social media like Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to the impact of sexual assaults and domestic violence in the Houston area and on college campuses. The students tweeted leads daily about the campaign. The tweets also included multimedia such as photos, radio wraparounds, television packages and links to web-ready stories [detailed story] that the students produced for their blogs. The blogs provided an in-depth story of the tweeted topic.
Another issue students covered was the 50th anniversary of Houston’s first sit-in. The anniversary program included a re-creation of the march civil rights leaders did on March 4, 1960. The students not only tweeted leads before, during and after the event, they also tweeted photos and video about the program from their smartphones. See www.houstonstudentmovement.com.
Local and national Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds from organizations like the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss/index.html , USA Today http://www.asp.usatoday.com/marketing/rss/index.aspx , Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/rss/index.html , Houston Chronicle http://www.chron.com/news/rss/ , CNN http://rss.cnn.com/rss/cnn_topstories.rss , NPR http://www.npr.org/rss/ , ABC http://feeds.abcnews.com/abcnews/topstories , CBS http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/12/utility/main666437.shtml , NBC http://rss.msnbc.msn.com/ and DIGG http://about.digg.com/rss were used as resources to help students understand the dynamics of writing an effective lead and using social media to tell the story.
The lead tweets [a post on Twitter] helped students to develop a keener understanding of quality content and the importance of concise writing. This exercise heightened students’ awareness of current events from downtown Houston to Soweto, South Africa. Equally important, it helped students to weigh the value of using a social media network as a reporting tool instead of a miscellaneous social forum.
This approach to writing leads established several important benchmarks. First, student motivation improved. They were already using a multitude of social networks. My student demographic is majority African-American. Twenty-six percent of Twitter users are black, according to a 2009 Pew study. Requiring them to use Twitter as a writing tool empowered them to be more insightful and creative in structuring their sentences. Academic skill levels and performances on writing tests improved. There was a keener understanding of the writing process. Students also learned the importance of self-branding and professionalism. They took great pride and ownership of the #TwitterNewsChat hashtag and viewed it as their own newsfeed. As a result of this assignment, I now reference the students as social media correspondents [use social media networks to report the news]. Several of these correspondents will be tweeting leads [post to Twitter] throughout the holidays and the beginning of the year (@MeenyMinyMoe Ameena Rasheed, @lisamantha Samantha Vallejo, @Anomaly713 Kenneth Ware Jr.) Overall, a generation of technologically perceptive students was inspired to perform at higher levels by maximizing lead writing and storytelling in a succinct manner.
(See more details on writing leads using the #TwitterNewsChat hashtag #TwitterNewsChat Lead Writing Details)