Tip sheet offers advice on finding real patient voices on Twitter, even on short deadlines

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

One of our older, incredibly helpful tip sheets at the Medical Studies Core Topic is Liz Szabo’s overview of how to use social media to find real people for articles. In that tip sheet, Szabo lays out a great overarching strategy on setting yourself up to find the sources you need for the topics you typically cover and how to monitor conversations not only for sources but also for story ideas.

That comprehensive approach, however, is aimed more at setting yourself up for a longer story or for a regular beat, and “starting early” is a key aspect of it. What if you’ve just been assigned a story and have less than a week to find patients or other “real people’s voices” — especially if it’s not an area you often cover? When you haven’t had time to do in-depth social media research, monitor conversations or build online relationships or a presence, you need some quick tips for findings folks on a short deadline. Then you need to know how to reach out to them and how not to sound creepy in asking them to share personal details about something they may have just casually tweeted and forgotten about.

That’s where a new tip sheet from the USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism can be particularly helpful. Their new tip sheet, “How to use Twitter to find a treasure trove of real patient voices,” focuses on how to find “where patients linger” even if you haven’t had time to put in the earlier legwork of exploring these subcommunities. One of the foremost suggestions is to use hashtags to find people, and the Healthcare Hashtag Project can help with identifying the right hashtags (or you can guess if you don’t find ideas there).

Then the tip sheet delves into actually reaching out to someone — using DMs (direct messages) versus replies to the tweet, etc. — and what type of responses you might receive. On a shorter deadline, it may take more requests to find someone comfortable talking, but the time you spend looking around can also be an investment into future stories about the same topic (or in honing your Twitter search skills for articles on different topics later).

Of course, finding sources on social media comes with some caveats as well: as with anyone else, you’ll want to confirm their identity and be sure you’re talking to the person you think you’re talking to. Do your due diligence in making sure they don’t leave you looking the fool for quoting them, and find out whether they, like any other source, have potential conflicts of interest.

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