Using Social Media for Storytelling

May 30, 2017

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Reporter’s Toolbox: Using Social Media for Your Storytelling

By A. Adam Glenn, SEJournal Editor

Digital storytelling techniques are nothing new in this online age, but for many busy (or reluctant) environmental journalists, they may seem an unnecessary luxury. 

Persuade yourself otherwise: Pew Research Center reports that nearly four in ten U.S. adults often get news from digital sources like websites, apps and social networks. That’s far more than now get their news from either radio or print newspapers.

That audience is reason enough. But also keep in mind the versatility and range of storytelling that is possible with digital tools. And remember that many are web-based and easy to access, simple to learn and free or cheap to use.


A post shared by Reveal (@revealnews) on

One chapter of an investigative series that news organization Reveal ran in its entirety on Instagram.

To help you to experiment with digital storytelling, Toolbox will present an occasional series with quick samplings of some of the interesting approaches available. And you’ll find links to examples to offer a better sense of how each of the tools can be used for journalistic purposes, including environmental reporting.

Some tools can be found on digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram that are probably already very familiar to you, but just located deeper within the service. Others may be totally new or surprising to you. But don’t be overwhelmed by the number of tools available — just take a few minutes to play with those that seem interesting to you to get familiar with how they work, and just start thinking of how you might use them in your journalism. When the time comes, they’ll be much more at your fingertips.

We’ll start the series with some less familiar storytelling tools with all-too-familiar social platforms.

Facebook Live. Everyone is familiar by now with Facebook, even if you’re not among the 2 billion active users who are expected this year to be on the world’s largest social network. But if you’re wondering about new ways to reach that enormous audience with your journalism, one tool to explore is Facebook Live, which lets you share live video up to four hours long with your followers. Facebook’s algorithm also bumps live videos higher in users’ news feeds, so you’re more likely to get attention. It can be used in numerous ways, such as for live interviews, by local stringers, or even, as in this unique case, for a local TV station to report on flooding after its transmitter was knocked off the air by a lightning strike. By the way, you can accomplish something similar on Twitter with its live video tool Periscope

Twitter Moment. Speaking of Twitter, which itself has more than 300 million users and has found its way into the repertoire of many a journalist, there’s a nice way to gather your disparate tweets into something more storylike. Twitter Moment allows you to publish a group of tweets, say on a related topic or unfolding story, into a collection with a cover photo and introduction. Here’s an example from when tropical storm Arlene hit in April, a day-in-the-life and more examples from Twitter. Plus, here’s a step-by-step how-to.

Instagram. This mobile photo-sharing application has been used by many a news organization to present its professional images. National Geographic is a prime example. But Instagram can also be used in numerous other ways. For instance, you crowdsource images from its largely young and female audience. The New York Times did this last year with a “Welcome Summer” feature. Here’s the newsroom’s “ask,” the photos it collected on Instagram using a common hashtag and the paper’s resulting Welcome Summer feature. But Instagram isn’t just for images. The news organization Reveal ran an investigative series in its entirety on the platform, combining illustrations and audio with extensive text (some lessons learned from the experiment). Also take a look at other Instagram tools, such as Hyperlapse, which makes simple time-lapse videos (a sample from journalists at NY Fashion Week), or Boomerang, which takes a burst of photos and stitches them together into a mini-video that plays forward and backward. Check out Instagram for Journalists from Facebook (which now owns the service), plus five ways newsrooms can use Instagram.

Snapchat Stories. Snapchat has a Stories feature that allows users (including journalists) to create a narrative compilation of Snaps posted only over the last 24 hours. While a dyed-in-the-wool news hound might be baffled by a service that turns its content into ephemera, many news organizations have begun serious experiments to reach Snapchat’s mostly 300 million-plus, under 34, female demographic. The New York Times, for instance, has launched a channel on Snapchat’s Discover service (here’s how to find it, as well as an encouraging writeup from an older editor learning to use it). There’s more on how a few big newsrooms are using Snapchat and other platforms, plus other news organizations and journalists to follow on Snapchat. You might also be interested in this online conversation on how journalists can use Snapchat for storytelling. By the way, Instagram last year also introduced a Stories feature (here’s a how-to).

In future Toolboxes, we’ll take a look at live blogging, mobile storytelling, mapping, infographics, photo and multimedia.

SEJournal editor Adam Glenn has been a digital journalist for over 20 years and has specialized in environmental reporting for 25. He runs two news sites on adapting to climate change, AdaptNY and the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation, and he’s also an educator, trainer and digital consultant. NOTE: Material for this Toolbox column was gathered with the assistance of colleagues at the Online News Association, and presented at an SEJ workshop in Dallas April 2017.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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