Engaging Twitter Audiences
Washington State University student journalist’s live observations during police calls provide followers with glimpse of the nightlife near campus. Such reporting should be considered with caution, SPLC warns.
By Dan Reimold
University of Tampa
This past academic year, Stephanie Schendel, the cops and courts reporter for The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University, has participated in occasional “tweetalongs.” During these weekend ridealongs with patrolmen from the Pullman Police Department, she has tweeted live observations, providing followers with a candid, witty glimpse of quirkier after-hours community goings-on.
This innovative reporting effort has a four-fold goal: to build a relationship with local law enforcement, to begin learning the police beat, to heighten the paper’s social media buzz and to provide readers with a running nighttime narrative of life in and around WSU.
More than anything else, the real-time reporting experiment has revealed one immutable truth: After dark, some people in Pullman, Wash., are a bit bonkers. For example, during the first half of an early February tweetalong, Schendel reported, “Girl just went by on a bike. No pants. . . . Someone got into a fight with a vacuum cleaner. The vacuum lost. . . . Group of girls screaming, don’t worry– it was just a puppy. . . . Girl passed out in the women’s transit car.”
Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte supports the tweetalong concept, with one major caveat and two cited cases.
“It’s totally fine – and, in fact, a great idea – to ride with the police to get a better understanding of their work,” he confirmed via email. “But it’s important to use caution in particular when following police into a private space where a journalist would not otherwise have been invited to go.”
For guidance, he refers to the 1989 Supreme Court case Wilson v. Layne, in which the majority ruled police had violated a family’s Fourth Amendment rights by having a photojournalist taking pictures while officers searched their home. Roughly a decade later, in Hanlon v. Berger, a couple filed a lawsuit against the government and CNN alleging similar Fourth Amendment violations. A CNN crew had accompanied and filmed federal wildlife agents during their search of the couple’s ranch, on the suspicion they were poisoning bald eagles.
“That case got resolved out of court, and we therefore have no binding guidance from the Supreme Court on whether a journalist or news organization can itself be in violation of the Fourth Amendment by airing the details of a police search,” LoMonte noted. “But the risk is not non-existent. … Any reporter who is writing a blog about police ridealongs needs to be aware that these cases are out there, because it is possible that publishing intimate details of a person’s life or home that were gathered as part of a ridealong of this kind will be actionable as an invasion of privacy.”
Below, Schendel discusses the related ethics and audience engagement issues involved in quality “tweetalongs.” She also describes how the tweetalongs began somewhat by accident, how WSU alumni have enjoyed the updates as a way of reconnecting with their alma mater and how she has received tips about criminal activity at times even before the police by her side are alerted.
Q: How did the “tweetalongs” start?
A: It was actually sort of an accident. When I started covering the crime beat in August of last year, I went down to the police station. I met with the police chief. We were having a conversation, and I mentioned I’d be interested in meeting some of the police officers who work specifically at night on College Hill, the neighborhood right next to WSU’s campus where there’s a lot of Greek housing, bars, and most students live. He immediately said, “Yeah, of course, that’d be great.” There are two officers from the Pullman Police Department who are assigned to that neighborhood. It’s their job to network with students, get to know student groups, to essentially act as a liaison between the police department and students. They were super open to having me. It was definitely an experience from the get-go. I did it one time and was just absolutely amazed at what goes on.
Q: How do you determine what is appropriate to tweet?
A: The first time I did it was probably the toughest. I had no idea what was going to happen. I honestly didn’t really know what goes on in terms of crime and what police respond to. I remember being incredibly overwhelmed because you would go to a funny interaction — for example, my first night there was a guy in a gnome costume rapping to the police officers. Then … we got called to an overdose, not someone I knew but essentially someone who was my age, who was a classmate of mine. It was really shocking for me as a student, as a person, as a civilian, to see that. So I immediately made the decision that victims and people who are arrested for MIPs [a charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol] or other minor crimes, their names are not important in these stories, even though some of it is public record. In terms of publication, we made the decision that it’s completely irrelevant. The stories that I try to create from these tweetalongs are about the issues and general things that happen to students. It’s not about the individual.
Q: Why Twitter?
A: Honestly, it was kind of an experiment. We were talking about how we wanted to get more Twitter followers and interact more with our audience. I don’t even know who came up with the idea. I think it was just, “Ooh, I’m doing a ridealong, maybe I’ll tweet some of my observations on it.” What happened was that it was a hit. People immediately started interacting with me the first night … and reacted so positively to the whole idea of my tweets.
Q: In what ways do readers interact with you during the tweetalongs?
A: What I’ve realized is that a lot of alumni follow our Twitter account. A lot of them are like, “Oh, I miss Pullman. I miss WSU.” And a lot of them … would re-tweet some of my quirkier tweets and the funnier things that happen. But then as it went on people started tweeting in incidents, like, “I just saw a police officer arresting someone for an MIP.” There have been a couple times, actually, where I’ve gotten tweets about incidents before someone even called the police. There was one incident where someone was shooting a gun in an alley, shooting it up in the air. I started getting tweets about it and I thought, “Well that’s weird. I haven’t heard anything.” So I tweeted out, “I don’t know anything. I haven’t heard anything.” Two minutes later, the call came over the dispatch.
Q: How did the sarcastic tone of the tweetalongs come about?
A: I go with the same two police officers each time. I think a lot of my tweets match their personalities. They’re very sarcastic … and have good senses of humor. I think you would have to in their line of work. My personality, I felt, really meshed with theirs. No one wants to be overwhelmed with tweets about overdoses and student falls and tragic things. Even though that’s a really important part of [the officers’] job, there are some positive things that happen and positive interactions. I really wanted to mirror that difference, that change where they can go from laughing to five minutes later be called to a scene where sometimes my reaction was like, “I want to cry. This is horrible what’s happening to people.” I just really wanted to capture that.
Q: At the start, what reporting ground rules did the officers lay out for you?
A: I think a lot of it was up to my best judgment. I think after the first [tweetalong] . . . they really trusted my judgment. There was only one instance in which they asked me not to tweet something out and that was when Officer Chris Engle needed to get a search warrant for something. It was in between the point when he smelled marijuana and was going to the police station to get a search warrant. That was the only time they asked me not to tweet anything out. I mean, I was once kind of on scene for a stabbing and … was kept in the loop on a lot of information that otherwise would not have been told to me if I was a reporter calling the next day to ask for information. They never asked me to keep certain things to myself. I think that they trusted me to have judgment over what was acceptable to publish and what wasn’t. It was a really, really good experience for me as a student. I told both of them, “I’m interested in becoming a crime reporter. This is a really fascinating thing and I love it. I want to learn as much as I can from you guys.” I think they took that and put me in situations where maybe if they didn’t know me they probably wouldn’t have brought me into those situations. It was a lot of trust that was built up.
Q: What is your advice for student reporters who want to carry out a tweetalong with police in their own campus community?
A: My biggest advice would be to keep an open mind. Before I started covering this beat, I didn’t know any police officers. … The police in our town, students don’t really look favorably at them. They are kind of seen as party busters. … So peoples’ perceptions of them weren’t that good. As a student, I sort of had that perspective too. Once I met them and spent more than an hour with them, my perspective on everything was completely different. … [There are] a lot of things civilians will never understand about what police officers do.
Dan Reimold, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, where he also advises The Minaret student newspaper. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published in fall 2010 by Rutgers University Press.