Writing news, Twitter-style
“Read through this latest news bulletin about the Dengue outbreak in the Philippines. Understand the facts and figures,” I told my students on writing during an early Saturday class.
“In the next 15 minutes, you will write a news story. And as an added twist, you’re all doing this on Twitter, real-time,” I added.
These were my instructions barely 30 minutes into the writing lecture. As expected, they were shocked. They protested.
“Sir, please, noooooo,” a number of students said. Some pleaded that I do another lecture (or so I heard). Others stared back at me, hoping I would change my mind. I offered a Pan-am smile and proceeded.
15 minutes of hell
Weeks after that exercise, I explained to each student why I gave them that seat work:
The Twitter news exercise — or the 15 minutes of hell as some students called it — was meant to trigger several emotions: panic, uncertainty, fear, and relief. All of these are emotions journalists go through whenever they do stories. News writing is 10% writing (ergo, typing) and 90% thinking and organizing facts under a deadline. I told students that the exercise was designed to see whether they could work under “pressure.”
The news writing exercise was based from a recent news bulletin by the World Health Organization, where the Philippine government saw a surge in the number of Dengue cases and deaths recorded during the first half of 2019. A Dengue epidemic was declared in August 2019.
The bulletin raised the alarm because of the steep increase of deaths caused by this mosquito-born disease. As of September 2019, the total deaths was 115% higher than September 2018. The cause of this overwhelming number of cases and deaths was unclear, but were linked to several factors: poverty, increasing urbanization, poor health conditions, among others.
This writing exercise on Twitter has been a good test of both the writing and non-writing skills of students. The unexpected discovery I had was reading about their fear of “exposing” their writing to friends and followers on Twitter.
Twitter, for them, has been a platform to rant or go “passive-aggressive” on somebody or someone. They also fear Twitter as a “trolling” environment where they can be harassed, bullied, or even laughed at for things they post — which to me seemed ironic, given they use and trust it more than Facebook and other social networks. Note to self: this merits a survey soon: the changing perceptions of College students on social networks.
“The first thing that came to my mind after hearing about the exercise was to make a new twitter account since my twitter account is in private and I do not have any thoughts about making it public anytime soon,” one of my students wrote in her class blog.
“When it comes to writing the story itself, I felt kind of lost, scared and pressured. First, I wasn’t sure about how and what to write. I was constantly typing and deleting everything for the whole 15 minutes and ended up erasing the word Philippines in my tweet and only noticed it after I posted it. So I just added another tweet to the thread with #Philippines,” she added.
Love the honesty, but as each student reflected back on the Twitter news writing exercise, it was clear that they were learning that the job of a journalist is NOT easy — writing news was not easy.
Now, they had better appreciation of what it takes to write a news story in the age of social. Takes grit — and to keep doing it, takes patience and practice. In my years of doing journalism, I got my share of mouthful lectures from editors, that blank stare when they’re trying to make sense of my story, and the outright rejection email that spells, R-E-W-R-I-T-E.
About the Author: He still struggles to write everyday. It’s a constant battle between good and evil — where good eventually wins, but that’s after several rewrites.