Using Social Media to… Compile your Story – by Samantha Moolman

This piece forms Part Five of our Series on Social Media

Social media certainly has its drawbacks when it comes to compiling a story – especially if it’s a hard news piece. However, the immediacy that sites like Facebook and Twitter provide also keeps journalists on their toes, forcing them to bring their A-game to every story.

Normally, before you begin the writing process you quickly need to decipher what information you’ll need to acquire. These days, with to-the-second live-streaming updates, it usually takes mere minutes to Google what’s been said online about a piece of news, or to check Facebook or Twitter to see what the general public already know and what they want to find out. Crafting a feature story (or something that is more in-depth) is, however, a lot less frenetic than crafting a hard news report.

Reviewing your notes and deciding what story you want to tell

Before you’ve even opened up a blank document on your word processor, take a deep breath and really consider what you want your story to be about. Social media can help you when deciding on the angle of your story – simply look at what’s already in front of you. What have people been saying about the topic? What links are they tweeting? What questions are they asking? What’s being left unsaid? Take the time to consider what your final product will have to offer and anticipate the discussions that it may initiate.  Once you begin writing, pause from time to time to consider whether or not you’ve deviated from your chosen angle.

I would advise that while you are constructing your first draft you log off of all social media sites (and the Internet in general). If you were to go home and rehash an event to your grandmother, you wouldn’t stop to Google the details after every sentence. So treat your audience the same way that you would treat your grandmother – be a storyteller to them, not just a reporter.

If, however, you do feel the need to go online to double check a fact or two, rather make a note of it and do so later. This will shave unwanted minutes off of your total writing time. If you keep stopping to refer to something on the Net, you’ll inevitably get distracted and will lose productivity. At this point of your story construction, you need to trust that you already know the basic facts that need to be told. And unless you’ve left the writing process to the last minute, there is no need to feel rushed when crafting a feature story. Francois Nel, author of Writing for the Media in Southern Africa (2007), advises that you “draft at speed” and “write at leisure” – with respect to your deadline, of course.           

Verifying your facts

The basic rule of thumb when a fact is not yet verified is: “When in doubt, leave it out.” But sometimes breaking news is simply begging to be shared with the world, and far be it from me to deny anyone a scintillating scoop! The commencement of civic journalism has proven that the public will turn to social media if publications and news broadcasters insist on remaining mum about an issue. Again, I caution the journalist to exercise discernment here, but I will venture to say that verification can come later if you break the story with tact. If you clearly state that what you are reporting is unverified (and therefore a rumour) the public will learn to trust that when you do have verified information you will say so. To steer clear of any legal complications (such as libel or defamation) be sure to remain unbiased and sceptical of any allegations in your reports until you are sure of the facts.

Once your story is published

If your story shows up online, share links to it with your social media networks. This is a good way to promote both yourself and the publication you represent. It also ensures that more people will get to listen to what you have to say.

However, if you do choose to intermingle your personal online identity with that of your publication, be aware that you don’t contradict the values of your employer. There are disclaimers for most situations in life, but not, as far as I know, for things said on social media sites.

Lastly, don’t forget that once you start utilising social media as a tool for crafting news stories, you have become part of a community. Once your story is published online people will almost always take the opportunity to comment on what you have said, and it’s only polite to respond to your readers. Always follow up, and always answer questions.

About the Author

Samantha Moolman is a freelance writer and editor who is currently responsible for the Family Life articles in Your Baby magazine.

Samantha also works as an assistant lecturer for the University of Pretoria’s Department of Journalism.

Picture Credit: Flickr.com_ Jorge Franganillo

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