Twitter class with the #backchannel: how journalism and social media evolve

In 2010, I began teaching the first class at Eastern Michigan University that revolves around social media. Housed in the journalism department, the class draws aspiring journalists and PR pros.

This semester, after we had a full class of Twitter immersion, I introduced a new concept. First, we watched a video from Stephen Clark on how he developed the #backchannel for WXYZ-TV in Detroit. Then, each student opened up their Twitter client and created a search column for the #backchannel. I sent out a warning tweet to the #backchannel that the class would be joining.

When the newscast started at 7 p.m., we had the live video from the website streaming on the screen. A few students starting picking up on the interaction and began tweeting. Others were watching their Twitter client and trying to figure out the rhythm of communication.

Then, it started to happen. People on the #backchannel began to respond to the students. Now, the students were talking to people outside of the classroom. Then, Stephen Clark tweeted and welcomed us. The class became excited and the noise level grew.

During a particular segment, Clark mentioned “crazy kids” on the air. Immediately after, he tweeted that the reference was for the class. Now they really dove in and began tweeting. Others in the Channel 7 newsroom were having conversations with different students and the backchannel was in full motion. Students were tweeting about news segments and talking to other viewers at the same time.

Near the end of the newscast, Stephen Clark said something to the effect of “I want to thank some students from Eastern Michigan University for joining us on the backchannel tonight.” I’m not exactly sure what he said because the room erupted into cheers and amazement.

Following the newscast, Channel 7 staff tweeted to the students and asked if they had any questions. Q&A went back and forth for awhile and the students learned about the origins of the backchannel and how the rest of the staff uses it.

Now, I could’ve showed the video about the backchannel, showed some slides of recent tweets and explained the process. But the effect and experience would not be anywhere near as memorable or educational than experiencing this new form of journalism.

Of course, my students now want to watch the evening news every Thursday during class. But they also know how to use Twitter better than the majority of the population and they know that it can be extremely effective for journalists.

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