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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Education Toolbox

Teaching social media in newsgathering

By Mac McKerral

Holly Hall pulled together a great panel at the August Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication confab in St. Louis that addressed an increasingly important element of teaching journalism: how and when to use social media for newsgathering.

The panel took on chunks of the topic that I’ll call LEP: Legal, Ethical and Professional considerations.

My area focused on the newsgathering element. With the help of my unit’s student assistant for the 2010-11 academic year, Marianne Hale, vice president of the Western Kentucky University SPJ chapter, I started preparing by examining news media policies for using social media in newsgathering.

I’ll tell you that what I am about to write isn’t groundbreaking or even novel. But I’ve taught for more than 20 years — every level from junior high through four-year college classes — and I always need reminders.

So, when it comes to teaching about using social media as a reporting tool, start by talking to your students about social media:

• How many use social media?

Do not assume they all do or that they use it for the same purpose. This discussion can reveal attitudes about social media that can shape the way you teach using it. Many Generation-Jers have grown up with and used social media for a long time. That use “socially” can certainly make some “comfortable” with the content they absorb from it. “Comfort” and good journalism do not mix well. “Cautious” and “skeptical” provide a better cocktail for LEP considerations.

• What do they use it for most often?

This narrows the bullet above in an important way. The way students most often use social media can reveal parallel applications for use as a journalistic tool or open their minds to avenues for gleaning credible and valuable information for a news story.

• Have they read or seen damaging Facebook posts/Tweets/YouTube videos about others or themselves?

Nothing brings home the concepts of truth, fairness and accuracy more than allowing students to revel in their own negative experiences or the negative experiences of classmates. It makes “Do unto others ...” much more than quotable verse.

• Do they use it to gather “for fun” information about people they do not know or do not know well?

My students call this “creeping.” And most do not view “creeping” as a bad thing. Some find “creeping” a way to challenge themselves to find “stuff” about people (climb the mountain because it’s there). And some use it to file away information for another day.

Really good “creepers” can translate those skills to effective reporting — done ethically and legally. I know “creeping” is a creepy word. But I would guess that most really good investigative journalists would consider themselves “creepers” and think positively about that word.

• Examine news media policies with students and discuss if they are realistic and effective in a journalism context. Have them develop a personal policy or newsroom policy, and then have them defend it.

So, what did the search for existing policies turn up?

• Quite a few news outlets have policies for using information drawn from social media in reporting. But many non-news entities have them as well.

• Most of the new media policies are dual in nature. That means they address using social media for newsgathering and guidelines for using it personally. In most cases, the latter gets more attention.

• Panelist Chip Stewart from Texas Christian University handled “Social Media Policies for Professional Communicators.” He made an excellent point and one with which I concur. Many of the policies in referencing social media limited that to Facebook and Twitter. We all know the scope of social media goes well beyond that and seems limitless. I shared with attendees a recent story about a manufacturer of “electric” cigarettes that intended to embed technology in the “electrobutts” (my word) that would signal nearby users. Social media? I think so.

• The policies that addressed news gathering retreated to the well-worn but very important tenets of traditional ethical and legal journalistic techniques: corroborate; verify; do not misrepresent; let readers/users know the source of the information; and maintain accuracy and freedom from bias.

All emphasize common sense and, as the AP states in its guidelines that became part of the Stylebook in 2010: “Social networks should never be used as a reporting shortcut when another method, like picking up a phone or knocking on a door, would yield more reliable or comprehensive information.”

For copies of my AEJMC presentation materials, email me at mac.mckerral@wku.edu.

Mac McKerral is an associate professor and news-editorial unit coordinator in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University, and a past president of SPJ. Reach him at mac.mckerral@wku.edu.

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