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Newsroom Policy Post X

On March 16, 2012, Steve Myers posted an article to Poynter about the New York Times and its potential search outside of the realm of journalism for the esteemed paper’s next social media editor. This search is necessary because the current social media editor at the Times, Liz Heron, left her position with the paper.

One quote from the paper hits home a point that a lot of journalists simply aren’t understanding. “There’s a difference between running a Twitter account and working on a social media strategy…knowing how to use social media to amplify the impact of your journalism.”

I follow some media outlets that use Twitter to simply post a list of links every single day. This is not engaging or effective. Twitter can be used to amplify stories and to communicate with the community. It should not be just another link machine.


On September 13, 2010, Mashable reporter Vadim Lavrusik posted an article about The Future of Social Media in Journalism. This is the first article I’ve read on the topic that doesn’t pretend like the reader emerged from a time machine that just left the 1700s. The introduction is simple enough, but he soon gets into deeper points that deserve attention.

The section on collaborative reporting touches on the fact that on-scene citizens, not necessarily journalists, can start to cover the story before the figurative (or literal) news van arrives. In this sort of news delivery setup, a journalist needs to learn how to utilize the community community as information gatherers, going to the sources who saw “it” first and captured pictures or videos on an iPhone or similar device.

As long as phones get cheaper and more advanced, people are always going to get the scoop on live events before journalists. After all, journalists aren’t everywhere at once, but people are.

This Top 15 list from the Center for Sustainable Journalism creatively informs readers of the rise of social media in journalism, and how the new medium has been effectively used over a dozen times in contemporary situations.

As a journalism student who grew up alongside computers, I have a solid understanding of social media’s strengths and weaknesses. What I don’t have – or didn’t have prior to reading this list – is a list of examples where social media undeniably enhanced coverage of a specific event.

The most striking number on the list to me is number 11. A New York Times reporter covered the Joplin tornado via social media, and the list links to a large blog post by him about his experience using that tool to do his job.

This post isn’t really a typical post, per se. It’s actually just a page advertising a one-hour Webinar led by Poynter faculty. However, it does highlight some of the most important things journalists should know about social media.

It seems that controversial tweets, including those regarding the recent media fiasco with Joe Paterno, has revealed to news organizations that the public deserves the same accuracy in social media as it does in print and other traditional news mediums. There does seem to be some kind of mental disconnect between journalists and social media, as there is not shortage of examples of reporters “getting it wrong” in social media.

This sort of webinar is crucial for anyone who’s struggling to come to terms with social media as a content delivery tool. Because the messages are so short the technology seems inherently simple, but there are still rules to follow, and responsilibities to the audience that must be maintained.

In April, USA Today posted an infographic explaining the role social media has in replacing traditional journalism as a news source.

That fact that stands out as most prominent to me is that over 50% of people learn about breaking news through social media rather than through traditional news sources. It does make sense, though, looking at this statistic through a personal lens. I learned of Osama Bin Laden’s death through Twitter, as well as the deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

There is a pros v. cons chart near that bottom that exposes the fallacies of social media as a news source, which is necessary because it is often placed on a pedestal. Social media does allow a limited character count, and it is meant for smaller, more digestible pieces that people can read on the go with little distraction.

Robert Quigley, the social media editor for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote a short blurb about the popularity of social media and its effect on working journalists. Quigley cites the ability to immediately interact with readers and “build valuable relationship with the public” as one of the greatest strengths of the young medium.

The story reads like it’s meant for someone who heard the word “Twitter” and ran in fear. It’s short and digestible, and the writer quickly gives a few examples of reader interaction with reporters.

I think the point to take away from this is that when you are a journalist, especially one with a public reputation (possibly for sports writing), people are going to want to interact with you. Sometimes it will be pleasant, but it’s assured sometimes they’ll be angry.

On March 26, 2012, two 16-year-old girls were arrested and charged with the 2011 murder of 32-year-old cab driver Adam Williams. Emily Starnes and Consandra Tyree, who are being held in the Hickory Police Department in North Carolina, were also charged with robbery with firearms and conspiracy to commit robbery. Major outlets – the two I’ve chosen to look at are ABC and CBS – picked up the shocking news, but reported the story in vastly different ways. I think these points illustrate journalistic ethics at work (or not) in a contemporary situation.

ABC chose to write up a 13-paragraph story, complete with a brief video. The girls’ full names appeared both in print and verbally during the video, and pictures of their faces are shown prominently at the top of the article. The article states that others have been arrested in connection with this crime, but the headline only refers to the two teenage girls.

CBS reported the story as a 20-picture slideshow. Each slide was accompanied by a paragraph explaining the basics of the story, as well as who appeared in each photo. The girls were again fully named, and the headline said nothing regarding the other detained suspects. The slideshow contained several pictures of each girl, most of them posed in the “self-shot” style popular with teenagers on Facebook. Some shots show a significant amount of cleavage. At the very end of the slideshow are three pictures of the males arrested for the crime. Only their mug shots appear; there are no “normal” pictures like you’d probably find on Facebook.

This is a multi-faceted case, and one of the issues needing attention here was the choice to name the suspects. ABC mentioned in its article that 16-year-olds in North Carolina are legally tried as adults, and so life imprisonment is a possibility. This could be all the justification the journalist, Christina Ng, needed. However, just because something might be legal doesn’t make it ethical. The two are not necessarily bound. In the American legal system, unlike in many foreign countries, the burden of proof lies with the accuser. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So, at the time of writing these articles, Starnes and Tyree were legally innocent. Providing full names as well as a couple of large photos (or 20 in CBS’ case) might not have been the best route to take to protect these young girls, especially if you follow a Kantian method and don’t prefer to use people as a means to an end. Also, looking at journalism codes, reducing harm is a pillar in several of them. Because they were currently detained in jail, there was arguably little need to identify as they were no longer a danger to the public.

Secondly, we have the issue of the personal Facebook photos. The CBS story contains several of them, but very few of them give us any information. They are simple glamour shots that show the girls in a very vibrant, attractive light – almost as if they couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes levied against them. In contrast, only three pictures of the arrested males were shown, and they were the dreary, unflattering mug shots taken at the police station. There were no photos of the boys playing sports or video games or anything that would paint them in a boyish, positive light. I didn’t conduct a survey here, but I don’t think people would have a hard time pegging the blame on the scruffy looking men instead of the cute teenage girls. It was an odd choice, and one I think could have benefited from a dose of Aristotle.

The Golden Mean could have helped narrow down exactly which pictures were most appropriate. At one extreme, a journalist would probably run the story with no pictures and no names. At the other end we’d have a combination of ABCs’ and CBS’ stories: Text with names, a news video, and a gallery full of mug shots and Facebook photos. Between these two ends lies the course of action I’d find most agreeable, which is to use the mug shots of all the suspects (assuming your editor requires a photo) and nothing more. Those types of photos are very thin content-wise. It’s there to show you a face, not to tell you how to think about said face.

Overall, ABC did a better job of respecting the girls’ privacy, though I personally would have done more. Had they not been apprehended, then I’d agree with posting names and pictures to get the public to assist law enforcement. But because they were safely behind bars, I don’t think posting their info was necessary. ABC’s story only shows the mug shot photos, so it doesn’t try to persuade the viewer with the rhetoric of the Facebook photos, which have no place in a story like this. CBS’ story, which was actually just a couple of nearly-identical paragraphs next to a bunch of self-shot glamour shots, seems a bit exploitative and disrespectful to young girls who are, as of writing this, still legally innocent.

Newsroom Policy Post IV

One week ago, Sapna Maheshwari of the Washington Post published a story about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and how his death led to a “hoodie movement.” The story touches on some background info, but focuses mainly on the “One Million Hoodies for Trayvon” Facebook group.

Circumstances aside (the shooting is tragic, of course, regardless of what actually happened), this is essentially a news post about a Facebook group – something that any kid in middle school knows how to construct. There is an attempt to fill the story with some padding, as evidenced by the “historical” hoodie information and a few graphs about fashion.

What this article shows, journalistically, is how society can dictate what journalists do or don’t cover. By simply posting a picture of oneself in a hoodie, this movement is pieced together, gains traction, and eventually become national news. This is a fine example that journalists don’t just use social media, they are influenced (used?) by it too.

I ran across this informative infographic on PR Daily detailing how to engage journalists through social media (as a common citizen or as a working public relations official).

What’s instantly capturing about this image is how it’s very clearly not meant for journalists. In this case, they are the audience the writer is trying to reach. Everything else we’ve done in this ethics class was viewed through the eyes of a journalist. Now it’s time to switch chairs.

The graphics provides details about which sites are best for research, which are good for PR interaction, and which are the most popular overall. Unsurprisingly, journalists were least willing to accept PR pitches through Facebook.

To my inexperienced eyes, it seems journalists and PR workers must be cautious allies. They both need each other; journalists need information, and a company needs product/service coverage in the media. But there’s a need to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and chatting over Facebook (which, in my mind, is far more personal than Twitter) is more suspect that tweeting bits of info to each other in public view. Conduct business in the open, and nobody will have a good reason to discredit your articles.

Nancy Messieh, a journalist at The Next Web, recently published a story about Myanmar journalists’ use of social media to bypass government restrictions during elections. The country’s tight media censorship has loosened relatively, but journalists are still questioned by the government if criticism is posted about the nation’s rulers or military.

Unlike journalism in the United States, all printed content in Myanmar must go through a censor before reaching an audience. Unfortunately, because news and social media are some of the greatest tools for societal growth and change, prior restraint can damper or hinder progress. To avoid these unfair limitations, 7DayNews, the largest media group in Myanmar, began posting election coverage updates multiple times per hour.

Much like Egypt’s semi-recent use of social media to enact change, Myanmar’s struggle shows how social media can, in a way, act as a conduit for journalism. One of the tenants of journalism (and my personal favorite aspect of the profession) is to serve as a voice for those who don’t have one. Social media can be that voice.