Teacher resources: How to use Twitter safely as a journalist

Twitter logo Image copyright PA

Although tweets are a maximum of just 140 characters long, the impact of the social media website on journalism has been huge.

Lots of journalists now use Twitter as a newsgathering tool. It can be a great way to search for contributors, case studies and information on a story.

It is also a good way just to see what people are saying on a particular topic and can be used to broadcast your stories to a wider audience.


BBC News School Report uses Twitter to promote stories and news about the project, but we make sure we follow these guidelines:

  • Not tweeting pictures of School Reporters. We tweet pictures of what we are reporting on, but not of the young people because of the risk of identifying individual children and their precise location outside of school
  • No surnames for School Reporters
  • Tweets are short and newsy
  • As with all BBC reporting, tweets need to be fair and accurate. It's important to remember that tweets are a form of broadcasting

Why not have a look at School Report's quiz on using Twitter safely as a journalist?

However, if you want to use Twitter as part of your journalistic research during the course of School Report you should think very carefully about safety issues and the age restrictions in place on Twitter.

Just like websites such as YouTube and Facebook, Twitter is aimed at people who are over 13. Within Twitter's pages on privacy is a section on their policy "towards children" which points out that "...our services are not directed to persons under 13... we do not knowingly collect personal information from children under 13".

Any use of Twitter or social media for School Report purposes should comply with your school's social media policy, and we strongly recommend it is done in a supervised capacity.

If your students are under 13... If students are 13 and above...
Students under the age of 13 should not be on Twitter and we would not recommend that this is part of the School Report activity for this age group. The sensible route we would advise is for the teacher to create a Twitter account for the purposes of School Report. Teachers should retain the password and sign off all activity.

It is crucial that social media is used safely, especially by young people. For more guidance on using social networks safely see BBC Webwise's guide to staying safe on social networking sites.

You can also read School Reporter's guide to staying safe online, with teenagers giving tips to their fellow teens on how to stay out of trouble.

And here are some simple tips to ensure you use Twitter safely - and remember that many of these tips apply to other social media websites too:

  • Never give out personal information such as your address or phone number
  • Don't say anything on Twitter that you wouldn't say face-to-face. Remember it is a public space - it's not the same as sending an email or a text message to one recipient. Once sent, tweets can be seen by anyone and if retweeted, can quickly take on a life of their own even if you delete it!
  • Choose a strong password (a mixture of numbers and letters which would be hard for anyone else to guess) and do not share it
  • Don't agree to meet someone you do not know in real life
  • If another user says or does anything which makes you feel uncomfortable, speak to your teacher or another responsible adult. There is also a function on the CEOP website where you can report abuse.
  • Turn off the 'add location to tweet' feature - to do this, click on the 'settings' option from the drop down menu to the right of the search box and untick the box (if it is ticked) next to the 'add a location to my tweets' option and then click on 'save changes'
  • Think carefully about the details you put in the 'bio' section and any photo you use

There is also more information available on these websites:


You can choose which other Twitter accounts you would like to follow. Depending on the stories you are working on, you might want to follow, for example, your local newspaper, your local council, your local football club or journalists who tend to cover these type of stories.

You can also create lists in Twitter to group together related accounts which can be a really useful way to manage lots of information coming in.

If, for example, you were reporting on a story about your local football club, you might want to follow the club's official account, an organised fans' group, supporters who blog about the team, footballers who play for the club, journalists who cover stories about the team and so on.

By creating a list, you can group all of these accounts together in one Twitter stream to make it easier to follow. Here are some step-by-step instructions to create lists.

You can search Twitter in a similar way to searching Google, Yahoo or other search engines and this can help you find out crucial information and even potential interviewees.

An advanced search can be a really good way of narrowing down the information that's coming in on a particular topic.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption You can search Twitter very easily

People often use hashtags to help their tweets get found by other Twitter users with an interest in a particular topic or event. So, for instance, during Prime Minister's Questions, journalists may compose a tweet about the exchanges and end with #pmqs which other people can then search for to bring all the tweets mentioning #pmqs together.

There's no hard and fast rule about what hashtags get used - try a bit of trial and error to see what people are using.

But it's vital that you treat Twitter just the same as any other source: just because something's on Twitter doesn't mean it's true!

Hoax accounts are common, and sometimes a Twitter user will pretend to be a famous person for the purposes of trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting. This is obviously dangerous and you should not allow yourself to be talked into a meeting with someone you do not know.

There are also parody accounts, where Twitter users pretend to be other people either for comedy or to catch out lazy journalists.

There have been a string of hoax stories circulating on Twitter, from made-up football transfer stories and political resignations to false reports of celebrity deaths. It's important to check out stories are genuine before you start reporting them.

At the BBC we normally want at least two sources for every story - that way you can be more confident that it's true. Use other non-Twitter sources to try to verify the story.

Twitter uses blue ticks to identify "official" accounts, especially for high-profile celebrities - but even some of these have proven to be hoaxes so use some common sense. Ask yourself: How many followers do they have? How much have they tweeted? When was the account set up? What is in their 'bio' section?

If an account claims to be, for example, your local MP but only has seven followers, has tweeted twice and was set up yesterday, alarm bells should be ringing!

This video on the BBC College of Journalism offers some more top tips on verifying stories, material and people you discover on Twitter.

Don't assume that you can just use material - videos, photos etc - that you come across via Twitter in your reports.

This guide from the BBC College of Journalism offers some more detailed advice about copyright issues and dealing fairly with people.

You should get consent from the person who posted the material before using it, and the same rules about privacy and taste and decency apply - don't use material that is unsuitable for your audience.

And think about the impact of using the material on the people involved. Is it fair to them to reuse it in a reporting context when this would not have been their original intention when they uploaded the material?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Get a second pair of eyes from the teacher before posting anything on Twitter


The BBC broadcasts breaking news and other stories on Twitter and individual productions - like School Report - also promote their stories and material via Twitter. Here are some useful handles: @BBCBreaking, @BBCSchoolReportand @BBCNewswhich will give you a good example of how the BBC does things on Twitter.

The BBC uses Twitter to broadcast headlines as a story breaks and provide links to further information which is available via the BBC News online site as more information becomes available.

If your school uses Twitter and has an account you may want to broadcast the headlines of your stories on the account - just like the BBC does. It's one way of getting your news seen by more people in your community who follow you.

It's also a way of getting people who are interested in the subject of your story to find out about it.

Imagine you were reporting on the possible closure of your local hospital. People who are interested in the future of the hospital may well search Twitter to see what the latest news is, so if you put the right terms - probably the name of the hospital in this instance - in your tweet, then your report will have more chance of being seen by a really engaged audience.

The key is to remember that BBC journalism values still apply: be accurate, fair and think about what your audience will find most interesting.

Think of the tweet as the headline to your story and apply the usual who, what, where, how and who rules.

Get a second pair of eyes from the teacher before sending anything.

And don't forget to include a link! There are URL-shortening websites such as bit.ly and TinyURL (many others are available, try an internet search for "URL shortener") which will ensure the link takes up fewer of your precious 140 characters!

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