Tip Sheets

Twitter for health journalists

By Pia Christensen
AHCJ Managing Editor/Online Services

Updated: March 13, 2009

What is Twitter?

The short answer: Twitter is a Web-based tool that allows you to send and receive messages that are limited to 140 characters. Your messages go out to people who choose to "follow" you and you see the messages that are sent by the people you choose to "follow." More about all of this below but the most important piece of advice I have is: Read this, then sign up for Twitter even if you still feel like you don't understand what it's all about. It is truly something you can't fully understand until you have jumped in and started using it.

Why should I use Twitter?

There are a number of ways in which journalists can use Twitter. You can keep up with experts on your beat, you can get news and press releases, you can connect with your readers, you can find new sources for stories and you can tell people what you have been working on. Twitter is really a series of conversations that happen in real time and in brief spurts.

You should also understand Twitter because there is evidence that more health professionals are using social networking:
Social Network Use Spikes Among Docs
Analysis from Manhattan Research
Twitter And Health 2.0: A Visual Story

What does Twitter look like?

It will look somewhat different to everyone. The Twitter page you see, once you're signed up, will carry all of the messages that have been sent by the people you follow, listed in the order they were sent.

For example, the image at the right is a glimpse of what I saw on my Twitter page one day recently.

First you see the icon from the Scientific American Twitter account, followed by the name of the account (sciam), the note that Scientific American is sending out and then a shortened URL that they are linking to. It also lists how long ago the message was sent.

Below that, you can see earlier posts from MRSA_blog about a new post there, and more "tweets" from before that.

When you include someone's Twitter account name in your post, you precede it with an "@" symbol and that ensures that person is alerted to your posting. That also allows other people to click on that person's Twitter account and see what they have posted. You can see examples of that in the posts from ryansholin and agahran.

To help keep you in the 140-character limit, Twitter uses TinyURL to change long URLs to short ones. You can see an example of that in the sciam update at the top.

There are other ways to use Twitter, through applications like TweetDeck, twitterific, twirl and more. But to start out, just use Twitter on the Web. As you get more familiar with Twitter, you will see what applications your contacts are using and can try them out.


Your first Twitter steps

My best advice is to go ahead and sign up for Twitter - it is free and easy to sign up for. Amy Gahran offers a step-by-step instructions on how to get started in her post "Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos."

Once you're signed up, go to my Twitter page. Below my photo, you 'll see a follow button like this: Twitter follow

Click on that button to follow me and you'll get AHCJ's messages and updates via your Twitter page.

How do I find people to follow?

On the right side of my Twitter page, you'll see this blue box:

You can click on the "following" and "followers" links to see who is following me and who I am following.You will undoubtedly find people in those lists that you will have an interest in following - just hit the follow button on their pages and you'll automatically get their updates. You can also look at who they are following and sign up to follow more people. Remember, this is social media!


You can also look at the lists I've linked to below of people on Twitter - there are lists of journalists as well as health experts, providers and others in the health care industry.

Start slowly. Find about five people who have similar interests to your and follow them. Don't be surprised if they, in turn, follow you. As you use Twitter more, you will start to understand much more about how it works and how it can be useful to you. I repeat: It is truly something you can't fully understand until you have jumped in and started using it.

Eventually, as you get more comfortable, you should start sending your own updates. Send out a link to a story you've done, or send out a question for a story you're working on. Do remember that what you write is public and can be tracked back to you. And, of course, if you use Twitter to find sources for stories, you need to have ways to verify who your sources are.

An example of

An example of"re-tweeting" a message. It's a good practice to use, giving credit to whomever first posted the information and link.

One thing to watch out for - don't get in the habit of only promoting your work. Engage with other people, offer feedback and "re-tweet" interesting items (that means that you copy what someone else tweets, put "RT" in front of it and post it - see example at right.)

As you get more familiar, you will see that you can "Direct Message" people - that allows you to send private messages to people.

If you have questions, I'm happy to help - send me a message via Twitter or e-mail me.

For a really good guide to getting started, I recommend reading Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos. Amy Gahran offers a concise explanation about what Twitter is, how journalists can use it and step-by-step instructions on how to get started.

Here are some other posts and articles about Twitter and journalism:

How to Twitter: The social rules and tips for gaining 'followers'; why opinionated people win - Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal explains her introduction to Twitter and how she uses it. 

Journalists still skeptical of Twitter, hear this - Kurt Greenbaum of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes about how reporter Tony Messenger uses Twitter.

Nine ways a journalist uses Twitter - Gina Chen of The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., writes about how Amber Smith, a journalist who writes and blogs about health and fitness for the The Post-Standard, uses Twitter. Chen also offers some helpful commentary to emphasize and explain the topic. Here is an earlier post from Chen about journalists and Twitter.

Experimenting with Twitter: How Newsrooms Are Using It to Reach More Users - Mallary Jean Tenore discusses ways in which news organizations are using Twitter.

Leading your staff into the Twitterverse - Steve Buttry of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has written a tip sheet about  journalists using Twitter.

How We Use Twitter for Journalism - Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb explains how he uses Twitter and offers some tips on etiquette.

Twitter to journalists: Here's how it's done - Mónica Guzmán of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer used Twitter to gather tips for journalists looking to break in to the social Web.

Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state: Four journalists, working for different news organizations in Washington, collaborated using Twitter to cover flooding in the western part of that state.

Perigee moons, and other Twitter musings - Ivan Oransky of Scientific American describes how they used Twitter to get many photos of the recent perigee moon and post them online. Oransky also discusses how Scientific American is using Twitter.

What I Love About Twitter: Breaking down barriers to engage with remarkable people - In this post, Jeremy Meyers explains what Twitter is and some potential uses and advantatges to using it.

So why aren't you Twittering yet?- Robert Niles, in Online Journalism Review, writes about using Twitter for journalism.

3 ways to follow Twitter journalists without tweeting: If you're a journalist who has not started using Twitter and can't see what all the hype is about, here are a couple links that will let you see what other journalists are doing in the Twittersphere.

Who is using Twitter?

List of doctors, medical students and medicine-related tweets, blogs and Web sites

Biomedical journals on Twitter

U.S. Hospitals that use YouTube, Facebook or Twitter

Top 30 Health Tweeple and The Forgotten Health Tweeple

List of journalists using Twitter

Media on Twitter

TwitterPacks Public Media - A list of public radio and TV shows, stations and personalities that use Twitter

Science writers on Twitter

Family physicians on Twitter

Some health-related uses for Twitter

Twitter for health and health care

140 Health Care Uses for Twitter  

The first live-tweeted surgery

Other health-related social media resources

Achieving Openness: Communicating With People Using Social Networks For Health & Wellness - This free Jan. 29 Webinar is hosted by Envision Solutions, a health care marketing firm, and will feature a panel discussion and Q&A with six social networking experts:
• Gina Ashe, Sermo
• Erin Edgerton, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
• Fabio Gratton, Ignite Health
• Benjamin Heywood, PatientsLikeMe
• Brian Loew, Inspire
• Jim Nail, TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony

Web 2.0-related resources, sites, services and tools in medical education created by the Medical Education Evolution community

Top Medical Podcasts: Medicine and Health Audio and Videos

How to write Twitter-friendly headlines


Wading into multimedia, tip sheet from Health Journalism 2008, gives tips and links for journalists working to learn multimedia skills.

Multimedia tools for telling stories: Shooting your own stories with a camcorder