Social Media in the Classroom: Twitter and Journalists

By Dominic Lasorsa, University of Texas at Austin

I have found an approach for incorporating the study of social media into the college curriculum that can be used with courses of different sizes and to study different social media. The project shows students that social media serve different functions for different users with different consequences, that as means of mass communication social media are relevant to journalists’ work, and that scientific methods can be employed to help answer intriguing questions, such as how new technologies affect journalists’ work.

I chose Twitter because journalists have become heavy users and because it is one of the newer online social media. Twitter is a form of “microblogging,” a means of communication in which short (no more than 140-character) messages are sent to other users who have chosen to follow the sender. Twitter “followers” are similar to Facebook “friends.”

The project was paced over the entire semester. First, students read three articles to become familiar with microblogging: “A primer on Twitter, by Chris Gaylord, Christian Science Monitor. The lingo of Twitter. Twitter taking off among Washington journalists, by Toby Harnden, London Daily Telegraph. Examples of journalists who use Twitter. Social realism, by Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher. More on how journalists use Twitter.” Students then were told to “open a public (unrestricted) Twitter account, identifying yourself by a user name of your choice. (You easily can delete this account once the class project ends.) If you already have a public Twitter account, you are welcome to use that one. When setting up your Twitter account you can use an anonymous name. As a journalist, however, there is a benefit in making your professional presence known, and Twitter is one way to do that. Therefore, I suggest that you establish yourself on Twitter by using your real name and putting up an attractive picture of yourself. The goal of this part of the assignment is to begin to familiarize yourself with microblogging.”

Students then were told to do the following within one week: “(1) Send a tweet. (2) Respond to a tweet. (3) Retweet. (4) Send a directed message. (5) Use a hash tag. (6) Start following 10 journalists of your own choosing. Choose well-established journalists who use Twitter regularly. (These activities are described in the readings accompanying this assignment. The Twitter Web site also has a help guide.)” Students were instructed to submit: (1) Your Twitter user name. (2) The time and day you started following your 10 journalists. (3) A list of the 10 journalists you followed. For each journalist, give (a) the link to that journalist’s Twitter page and (b) a 1-to-3-sentence description of how that journalist uses Twitter. (Does the journalist use Twitter to promote stories she has written, to seek out sources for a story on a particular topic, to comment on the news of the day, to recommend a good book, to direct us to a story written by someone else, to relate what he had for breakfast, to decry the pain of being a White Sox fan?) Give a sense of the way(s) each journalist uses Twitter.”

The second assignment involved having all students study the Twitter activities of the same four journalists Based on what they had done earlier with journalists of their own choosing, students now were encouraged to relate publicly their impressions of how they thought each of these four journalists used Twitter. This part of the project demonstrates to students that while most would likely come to generally the same conclusions about what they were seeing, that others might interpret the same microblog message differently. This is an eye-opener, as students discover the importance of reading tweets carefully in order to understand them, and that even though a student might feel confidence in his or her own interpretation that others might not necessarily agree with that interpretation. This became a prelude to the introduction of the topic of content analysis as one way to conduct a more formal analysis of messages.

The next step was to ask students to make a list of questions they would ask about a tweet posted by a journalist. Then, together in class, we began to develop a “codebook” to analyze journalists’ tweets. Before this exercise, I developed a draft I used to steer students toward an effective codebook. It is important that the students feel that they help develop the codebook, that these are questions they want to ask and answer. It also is important not to try to do too much. Ask only a few good questions, no more than a dozen or so. Even more importantly, make sure the coding decisions are reasonably easy to make. Don’t ask questions that are too subjective. While it is easy to determine whether a tweet contains an external link, it is more difficult to agree on whether a tweet contains humor. In class, we came up with the following questions to ask of a tweet: Is its primary purpose to seek information, state an opinion, or convey information? Does it primarily self-promote (publicize one’s own story or that of one’s news organization)? Does it primarily convey mundane information about one’s everyday life (known as “lifecasting”)? Does it primarily convey breaking news, as it happens? Does it primarily seek sources or story tips? Does it primarily seek reactions to one’s work or that of others? Does it contain an external link and, if so, to what type of source (e.g., a journalist's own news organization, another news medium)? What is its primary topic (e.g., politics, sports)? Is it a retweet (a message received from a follower and then re-sent to others)?

The next step was to practice the coding of journalists’ tweets. Students find a project like this fascinating and will want to perform well but they need to feel comfortable about the coding process, which is an unfamiliar idea to them. Without adequate practice they will find the coding process frustrating and their work will suffer. So, don’t skimp on practice time! Two weeks of practice both in class and as homework assignments is probably sufficient but, if necessary, add additional training. First, we went over the codebook in class to make sure all students fully understood the process. Then we practice coded a variety of tweets together in class. Start with tweets that are easier to code and then introduce more challenging ones. We independently coded each tweet and then collectively discussed how we coded it. Once we felt comfortable with the coding process, we coded the same 20 tweets for homework and went over them the following class. Identify any problematic coders and give them additional training. If you conclude that they are incapable of performing well (e.g., they have language issues) then have them perform other activities that allow them still to feel engaged (e.g., have them look for and report on additional articles about Twitter and how journalists use it). Next, I had each student code the tweets over a two-week period of eight journalists selected from a list of the 500 journalists with the most Twitter followers provided by the developers of Muck Rack (, a site that aggregates the tweets of professional journalists. It has a database of thousands of journalists on Twitter, and organizes them by their news organization and beat expertise. Students wrote a brief report on all of the tweets (Twitter messages) written by each of the four journalists over a two-day period. Then we held a class discussion on what we observed.

The final step was to have students write a short (e.g., five-page) report on what they learned regarding how journalists use Twitter and what it means for the practice of journalism. For this part of the project, students were required to cite at least six articles that deal primarily with how journalists use Twitter (beside the three they read earlier). To help students, they were provided with a list of such articles, which is provided in the Appendix. Additional articles published subsequently have been added to the list, which can serve as a useful tool to those intending to explore this topic further.

This approach to the study of a social medium requires considerable forethought and work but the payoff is well worth the effort. By combining both qualitative and quantitative elements, this approach showed students how the blending of these two research methods can yield results that may be superior to either method alone. By having students work on a project not just individually but collectively, they were able to see the value of collaborative work coupled with independent thought. Most students responded enthusiastically to the project because they recognized it as a topic both timely and relevant to their own interests as future journalists. When I collected the term papers, I asked students what they would most want to do if they were going to study the topic further and I was gratified by the number who agreed with a student who said that it would be “fun” to talk to the journalists they studied and “ask them questions about what we found about the way they tweet.” Indeed, that would be an excellent addition to a project like this.

Appendix: Selected Articles about Twitter and Journalists’ Use of Twitter
  • A year in the news. (2010). The State of the News Media 2010. Retrieved from
  • boyd, danah m., & Ellison, Nicole B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1).
  • D'Monte, Leslie. (2009). Swine flu's tweet causes online flutter. Business Standard. Retrieved from
  • Deuze, Mark.(2005). What Is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered. Journalism 6(4), 442-464.
  • Devoe, Kristina M. (2009). Burst of information: Microblogging. The Reference Librarian, 50, 212-214.
  • Emmett, Arielle (2008). Networking news: Traditional news outlets turn to social networking Web sites in an effort to build their online audience. American Journalism Review, 30(6), 40-43.
  • Haiti earthquake Twitter updates: Live real-time pictures. (2010). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
  • Hayes, Arthur S., Singer, Jane B., & Ceppos, Jerry. Shifting roles, enduring values: The credible journalist in a digital age. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 22(4) 262-279.
  • Hermida, Alfred (2009). Budding journalists use Twitter, blogs to open doors. Mediashift. Retrieved from opendoors041.html
  • Hermida, Alfred (2010). Twittering the news: The emergence of ambient journalism. Journalism Practice (iFirst), First published on: March 11, 2010
  • Huberman, Bernardo A., Romero, Daniel M., & Wu, Fang (2009). Social networks that matter: Twitter under the microscope. First Monday, 14(1).
  • Hughes, A. L., & Palen, L. (May 2009). Twitter adoption and use in mass convergence and emergency events. Paper presented at the 6th International ISCRAM Conference, Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • Jansen, Bernard J., Zhang, Mimi, Sobel, Kate, & Chowdury, Abdur (2009). Twitter Power: tweets as electronic word of mouth. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 60(11), 2169-2188.
  • Java, Akshay, Song, Xiaodan, Finin, Tim, & Tseng, Belle (2007). Why we twitter: Understanding microblogging usage and communities. Proceedings of the Joint 9th International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining
  • Johnson, Philip R., & Yang, Sung-Un. (2009). Uses and Gratifications of Twitter: An examination of user motives and satisfaction of Twitter use. Proceedings of AEJMC, Boston, MA.
  • Johnson, Steven (2009). How Twitter will change the way we live. Time Magazine. (June 5, 2009).
  • Kaplan Andreas M., Haenlein Michael (2010) Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business horizons, 53(1), 59-68.
  • Miller, Claire Cain (August 26, 2009). Who's driving Twitter's popularity? Not teens. The NewYork Times.
  • Neal, D. (2010). There are 75 million Twitter users. The Inquirer. Retrieved from
  • Ostrow, A. (2009). Twitter now growing at a staggering 1,382 percent. Retrieved from
  • Paul, N. (2005). 'New news' retrospective: Is online news reaching its potential? The Online Journalism Review. Retrieved from stories/050324paul/
  • Robinson, S. (2006). The mission of the j-blog: Recapturing journalistic authority online. Journalism, 7(1), 65-83.
  • Seward, Zachary M. (2009). Muck Rack, home of 140-character dispatches from the field, gets useful. Nieman Journalism Lab, Harvard University. Retrieved from of-140 character-dispatches-from the-field-gets-useful/
  • Shaer, Matthew (2010). Twitter users post 600 tweets per second. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from 600-tweets-per-second
  • Singer, J. B. (2005). The political j-blogger: 'Normalizing' a new media form to fit old norms and practices. Journalism, 6(2), 173-198.
  • Skoler, Michael (2010). Why the news media became irrelevant and how social media can help. Nieman Reports. Retrieved from
  • Stassen, Wilma (2010). Your news in 140 characters: Exploring the role of social media in journalism. Global Media Journal, African Edition, 4(1), 1-16.
  • The New York Times on Twitter. (2010). The New York Times. Retrieved from
  • Top twenty-five social networking sites. (2009). Social Media Optimization. Retrieved from http://social-media- networking-sites-feb-2009/
  • Tremayne, M., Zheng, N., Lee, J. K., and Jeong, J. (2006). Issue publics on the web: Applying network theory to the war blogosphere. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 12(1).
  • Witt, Ryan (2010). Latest updates (including Twitter) on Chile's earthquake and the impending tsunami. The Examiner. Retrieved from Twitter-updates-on-Chiles earthquake-and-the-impending-tsunami

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