How (Should) Journalists Use Social Media

Lisa talks with her hands about why she uses social media on the job. (Photo credit: Miss604 on flickr)

Lisa talks with her hands about why she uses social media on the job. (Photo credit: Miss604 on flickr)

This weekend at the Northern Voice conference, Kirk LaPointe from The Vancouver Sun and I spoke on a panel called “How (Should) Journalists Use Social Media.”

The visuals I used, created using a new-to-me online tool called Prezi, are posted online here.

I won’t recount the whole thing, but here’s a couple of key ideas I talked about.

Social media makes my city smaller

My city, but smaller and more interesting. (Photo credit: ecstaticist on flickr)

My city, but smaller and more interesting. (Photo credit: ecstaticist on flickr)

Smaller, more interesting, perhaps even more friendly.

In my talk, I told a story about my first job at CBC: a short-term stint as CBC Radio’s Nelson bureau reporter. There, it was a lot easier for the public to reach me, if they wanted to. No security desk, no switchboard in Toronto, just a one-room office and the phone number was in the book.

In a big city newsroom like CBC Vancouver, it’s very different. It would be easy (though not smart) to avoid “the audience” almost completely. In my opinion, good journalists don’t — with or without social media. I use tools like Twitter to reach out beyond the people I would otherwise know, to get to know my city better. My networks are bigger, and that makes my city smaller.

Social media as “social scanner”

So, if you see something on Twitter, do you go report it on air? No, of course not.

It’s like a police scanner to me. People who work in news sometimes listen to chatter on the police scanner to find out what’s happening. A fire in Coquitlam. A fatal MVA in Abbotsford. Just because you hear it, doesn’t mean you immediately go on air with it. You need to find out more. But now you know what to find out about.

That’s how I use Twitter, and other social media tools. If I see a tweet about something that could be breaking news (like the injuries at the Alexisonfire concert in Vancouver during the Olympics) then I start asking questions, and searching for more.

Stream vs. reservoir

Other reporters, or people starting to use Twitter on the job sometimes ask me how I keep up with my followers. And the answer is, I don’t.

For me, email : reservoir :: twitter : stream.

The water in the reservoir of a dam is contained and accounted for — stored until it’s eventually released through the turbines, or out some overflow. That’s email to me: I have an obligation to deal with what’s sent to me.

For me, Twitter and blogs and Facebook are streams I dip in and out of. I enjoy them while I’m there, but I don’t feel beholden to track every drop of water that flowed before and after my visit. Nor do I expect that of others.

How do you think journalists should use social media?

Thanks to notes from DameEmma, Stephen Hui, ivantohelpyou, shamelesshussy, Miss604, Gillian Shaw, Rob McMahon, di_marshall and Hummingbird604 for helping me decide what to repeat here.


  1. Great post and good call on your key takeaways from your talk yesterday. I would add that journalists should be using social media in coordination with their publishing and broadcasting teams.

    These days too often newsrooms are using social media channels in traditional ways to broadcast links to existing stories (for the most part) while their journalists are using it to learn, share and build stories.

    If journalists could work with editors to humanize the channels that push messages for the broadcasters to use those networks to enhance stories, coverage and community that would be a step in a positive direction.

  2. Great post. Sorry I missed your session while I was running my own.

    Your note about Twitter as scanner reminded me of a discussion I had with a journalist friend. She was a crime reporter at a city newspaper. When in the office, she’d have the police scanner on, and be listening in for certain police codes. We actually made three lists: codes she ignores, codes that pique her interest, and codes that get her up out of her seat and out the door.

  3. Interesting point, Kemp. I see what you mean, there is a difference/disconnect between how some reporters and newsrooms use these tools.

    But doesn’t that also make some sense? At any organization, I’d expect the “@NameofOrganization” feed to be pretty official and traditional, because it’s trying to be a voice of the entire group/brand. Whereas the “@SomeoneWhoWorksThere” feed is a single person, so the voice can be more authentic and human. (I mostly don’t follow the @NameofOrganization feeds.)

    Do you know of any organizations that are doing it the way you think it should be done?

  4. Thanks, Darren. I’ve also known news people who sleep with a scanner on, and try to wake up only for the urgent stuff. Not too restful.


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