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Covering Oklahoma weather, one tweet at a time

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How we cover news has changed and continues to evolve with the use of mobile technology. The same goes for weather.

When a big storm hits, people have grown accustomed to turning to Twitter to follow hashtags and share photos and video. They’re also looking for the latest information on a storm and its total damage.

That’s why a new class at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma is focusing on mobile journalism and how to use smartphone applications to cover the news.

The class is called OU StormCrowd and allows students to use iPod touches to report on weather events from the field. It’s in its second year and has attracted both journalism and meteorology students.

“If a journalist or citizen was next to any kind of news, we want to know how they can cover it,” said associate professor Julie Jones. “We really wanted our students out and about and actively using it.”

The idea for the class came about when Jones and another professor were discussing whether or not an iPhone could be used as a reporter tool.

Using the iPod touches, students are now able to go out into the field and send updates back through Twitter. The tweets, photos and videos are then pulled into a map on the class website.

The class has a main Twitter handle, @OUStormCrowd, but students are asked to create separate accounts for the semester to be retweeted by the main account. This allows students to build up their own following and credibility. It also holds them accountable for the information they tweet, she said.

Jones said reporting from the field helps them with speed and accuracy, as well as thinking about how to add value in the moment.

Katherine Borgerding,  an OU student and former NewsOK intern, took on the role as the editor for the first semester and said they were able to meet with National Weather Service forecasters to learn about how to cover weather events.

“We kind of put together what we wanted the class to look like, and it was getting students to push boundaries of technology and basically whatever you could do with a cellphone,” she said. “When you go out, you’re really tempted to focus on damage, but it’s better to focus on the people who have been impacted.”

In April 2012, a tornado categorized as an EF-1 hit Norman. Despite a large following on Twitter at the time, Borgerding said the class quickly responded and even beat some of the major news outlets with interviews and damage reports.

“We were all getting together after class and the tornado sirens went off, and we were all in that mobile journalism mode,” she said. “We all jumped in a car after it passed and looked for people.”

After a recent round of severe thunderstorms, many of the students used Vine to create six-second videos of rain and flooding on campus.

“I think Vine is pretty interesting and a pretty great tool for this sort of thing. It’s easily shared,” she said.

But the group hasn’t just focused on weather. In fact, they’ve used their mobile skills to cover sports for The Purcell Register this semester and campus crime.

Jones hopes the class will venture into new territory next spring through the use of live streaming and experimenting with structuring tweets to create a narrative.

“We’re growing it. It always changes as we start to do things,” Jones said.

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Tiffany Gibson

Tiffany Gibson has worked for The Oklahoman since August 2011 and is a member of the enterprise team and digital desk. In addition to writing and web editing, she creates interactive features for and assists with data visualization and... Read more ›