A few (journalism) resolutions for 2018

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2017 is quickly winding down. Most schools already are (or soon will be) on break. As we prepare to celebrate the holidays, people begin reflecting on the past year and seeking ways to improve in the 12 months that lie ahead. I’m here to offer a little help in making those New Year’s resolutions—for your publication lab, that is.

The news industry continues to change at a rapid pace. New innovations drive the way news is produced and delivered, and emerging platforms influence the way audiences consume information. As educators, it’s important to help students stay abreast of this whirlwind of change.

These three articles are helpful reading for any journalism student or educator. The insights found therein provide clues about where the industry is going and how students can capitalize on those trends to both better their skills and more efficiently serve their audiences. The first two pieces recap recent journalism education conventions, while the third is a compilation of predictions from leaders across the news industry about what’s ahead for journalism in 2018.

1) How college media staffs, advisers pursue digital-first mindset
2) How high school journalists are innovating with podcasts, 360 video and more
3) Predictions for journalism 2018

Based on those three pieces, I offer a set of resolutions for the new year to jump start your staff’s search for better engagement and deeper storytelling.

Resolve to embrace a digital-first mindset. Stories are happening now, and readers crave immediacy. Approach every story with readers’ needs as your top priority. Sometimes that means a longer, investigative print story, and other times it means a quick brief posted to social media. Of course, this approach means adapting your deadline calendar and reassigning roles on your editorial leadership team. After all, someone needs to be monitoring those social media feeds. Digital-first doesn’t mean the web overshadows print. Rather, it means embracing the ability to tell stories in new, dynamic ways.

Resolve to get out of your comfort zone. The tools available to journalists to tell stories are constantly evolving. The options can seem overwhelming. Students should embrace this cacophony as an exciting challenge and opportunity. If you keep covering the same story in the same way year after year, you’ll get the same results. While students don’t need to be experts with any given tool or platform, they should strive for some proficiency. First, take stock of what others (both other student media and professionals) are doing. Get ideas and see how such tools fit within your coverage. How can video be incorporated into homecoming coverage? How can a Google Map help readers better understand the neighborhoods where they live? Not ready to jump into drone journalism and augmented reality? Start small. Every step gets your closer to your goal.

Resolve to create engagement. The web and digital tools are geared toward audience interaction. Provide readers with more ways to find information and to understand the essence of stories. Give them more things to click on. And, for heaven’s sake, include hyperlinks in your digital stories as a bare minimum. (This from a cranky judge who’s seen too many web stories devoid of any hyperlinks.)

Resolve to put the audience first. Journalism is about serving readers and their needs. Period. It’s never about “showing off” the new tools and toys at your disposal. Commit to doing great journalism in 2018. That means asking tough questions, seeking answers and digging for information. Help readers understand why so many students in your school are living below the poverty line or how changes in school funding at the state and federal levels will affect students in your classrooms. Do solid reporting and use the tools available to present stories in the most engaging way possible.

Resolve to go easy on yourself. Figuring all of this out can be daunting, so it is important for students to take a deep breath. Each staff needs to find what works best given the time and resources available. Set reasonable, workable goals and measure results. For instance, maybe you start by doing more live coverage of sporting events or creating more specific job descriptions for those on your staff handling social media. Start doing something, and the rest will follow.

And with the right amount of commitment, these resolutions can last longer than those promises to hit the gym in the new year.

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season and a wonderful year ahead both in and out of the classroom!

 

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It’s all in the details—Recent blunder reinforces need to teach accuracy & verification

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The journalism profession operates on one key foundation: trust with the audience. If the audience doesn’t believe the words journalists write, the photos they publish or the facts they gather, all their effort is for naught. Finding and reporting the truth is what separates journalism from the hucksters, liars and rumormongers.

And the details do matter. After all, if the audience can’t trust you with the small stuff, how can they trust you to get the bigger things right? Accuracy with names, dates, places and spellings is an essential part of forming that solid foundation upon which that crucial trust and credibility are built. Learning the value of accuracy and cultivating practices to ensure its fruition in every story should be paramount in every publication lab. Yet these ideals sometimes remain unmet even in the professional world.

Take the story last week about ABC News investigative correspondent Brian Ross. Ross reported that Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, was prepared to testify—as part of his plea deal with the FBI—that then-candidate Trump instructed him to make contact with the Russians in 2016.

Ross included that claim based on his conversation with one confidential source close to Flynn. After the story aired, Ross was forced to correct that statement to note that only after elected did Trump instruct Flynn to contact the Russians for the purpose of repairing relations in order to better combat ISIS. Ross was suspended for four weeks and has been barred from covering stories about the president.

That seemingly simple misreport had real consequences. At a time when those who see any coverage that opposes their own viewpoints or worldview as “fake news,” this type of error could add more unnecessary fuel to such claims. Some could even use it to attempt to discredit truthful reporting in the future. To others, it’s just further evidence that journalists either fabricate stories outright or at least rush to judgment if the story fits one of their supposed preconceived agendas (in this case, to discredit the president).

Ross’s reporting hinged on a confidential source. This is the perfect opportunity to remind students about policies and guidelines about confidential sources. Denying readers the transparency provided by naming sources should only be done in the most extreme circumstances. The story must be of utmost public interest to garner confidentiality. It’s essential to have a procedure in place for who makes the decision to grant confidentiality and under what circumstances such requests should approved.

This is also the time to double down on teaching the basics of accuracy checklists at all phases of the reporting process. This means attending to the small details—like getting a person’s job title correct—but it also means ensuring you’ve consulted enough sources with sufficient knowledge and expertise to paint an accurate picture with words, photos or video. After all, five clueless sources with no firsthand knowledge really can’t lead the audience to a deeper understanding of the nuances of any given topic.

Students can learn a great deal from the missteps of their professional counterparts. This situation can be a reminder of the importance of getting it right and giving readers a truthful rendering of events.

A few ‘tough questions’ about social media

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Social media and communication technology have left an indelible footprint on modern life. Everything from business to education to family relations have been upended in the past decade by social media’s ubiquity.

Friends and families separated by thousands of miles can instantly keep tabs on one another’s daily lives. Businesses reach their customers in more direct ways. Have a complaint about that latest purchase? Getting a response or even a quick fix might be as close as the company’s Twitter handle. For journalists, sourcing stories has become much easier. Eye witnesses to breaking news events or those affected by some national trend—from those who drive hybrid cars to those who teach ballet—are just a few shares away.

But social media’s rampant nature also means these platforms exert control over how people communicate, what information they are exposed to, and how they structure their lives. Just think of those who spend time perfecting their selfies or trying to make their lives appear “postably perfect.”

Whether the creators of these platforms intended it, social media possess a power all their own. The items their algorithms flag as more salient get more attention. Other items and ideas might drift into obscurity simply because they don’t appear as the top hit in a search or in one’s newsfeed. Some viewpoints could be squashed completely because the creators of a particular platform disagree with them.

And all of that is perfectly legal. Any platform has the right to allow some forms of speech while silencing others. Social media companies are private entities, not government actors. Their actions aren’t subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

On the flip side, the First Amendment generally does protect the right of satirists and even those peddling outright hoaxes and lies. With few exceptions, those who create and share misleading information (either with malicious or humorous intent) have the right to do so under most circumstances. Individual social media platforms also have the right to regulate such content. But if they choose not to, there is little the government can do to step in without running afoul of free-speech protections. In an era of such connectedness, lies can take hold much more quickly and spread before anyone can debunk them.

As these platforms have wormed their way into most people’s everyday lives, their prevalence sparks tough questions about their impact on society. What people see, when they see it, and how much of it they see all shape the picture of the world they experience and then act upon.

Operators of these platforms assert they are simply carriers of what others post, and they try to absolve themselves of responsibility for the content others share. But the truth might be more mixed. Just consider how representatives from some social media companies were called to Capitol Hill to testify about Russian influence during the 2016 presidential election. Recent coverage has focused renewed attention on whether some social media are too big, too powerful and too influential.

Facebook released a set of questions this summer to show it was debating its platform’s social consequences. These questions grapple with deep, open-ended points about the impact of social media on modern life—the spread of false information, changing cultural norms, shifting notions of privacy, and the importance of teaching young people to appreciate the consequences of what they post and share.

All of Facebook’s questions can form the basis of an in-depth class discussion, project or assignment.

I’ve added a few of my own to their list:

  1. Some say they get most of their news from social media, yet none of these platforms employ journalists to gather and report news. All of the sites share news produced and reported by other organizations. What responsibility should these platforms exercise to ensure the news content they contain is credible and factual? If people see junk news and outright falsity more than truthful information, what impact could that have on their understanding of world events?
  2. The algorithms these platforms use generally boost posts that get more likes, shares, comments and attention. Thus, if users are inclined to share or like false or misleading information, the algorithm is more likely to reward it by boosting it even further. This phenomenon is further bolstered by these platforms’ advertising structure. What responsibility do these platforms have to ensure truthful information gets more play while not putting themselves in the position of becoming the “final arbiters of truth”?
  3. How do social media encourage filter bubbles and support confirmation bias whereby people share false or misleading information among those who share their viewpoints?
  4. What information are these platforms collecting about their users? Should they be more upfront about what they’re collecting and how it’s used?
  5. How should social media platforms handle content that glorifies hatred, terrorism or bullying? Are social media the proper place to document atrocities and wrongdoing, such as war crimes or police violence?

 

Journalism programs are the ultimate hands-on media literacy laboratory

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During this week dedicated to the importance of media literacy, we focus on the skills people need to make better information choices. As the National Association for Media Literacy Education defines it, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, communicate and create by using all forms of communication.

And there’s certainly a lot to learn. Young people are ushered into this media-saturated world from birth. For some, their parents create social media accounts for them before they can talk. Kids have smartphones and tablets in their hands as they head to preschool. Technology becomes part and parcel with daily life.

In this environment so saturated by media, we bespeak of the need to train young people to become critical creators and consumers. Our goal is to ensure they understand the gravity of what they post, film, photograph and make by instilling a deep sense of empathy for others and a pursuit to use their power to create and share for the benefit of society.

We want young people to question what they find and to exercise a healthy skepticism instead of merely reacting. We hope they will counter misinformation with purposeful discussion. As they continue to mature in their sense of media literacy, young people should develop a strong commitment to engaging others in dialogue about important matters to the public. They should use the tools they have available to discover and develop their own voice as a means to influence others and to affect the world around them.

What I’ve just described in the paragraphs above are just some of the skills young people learn in a scholastic journalism program. Each day, across the country, students learn—in the most hands-on way possible—those five skills mentioned above that define media literacy.

They access information online, on social media, in databases, in public records, through interviews, and through direct observation.

They analyze what they find. They discuss their findings with fellow staffers and advisers. They look for holes in their reporting. They form and ask follow-up questions. They find more sources to answer their still-burning questions. They look for ways to make complex information like school budgets and the effects of poverty in their community more understandable and relatable.

They evaluate the information and sources they discover. Are they credible? Who created this information? Do they have any inherent biases or hidden agendas? Is this source telling me the whole story, or do I need more help to understand it? Who will be affected by my reporting? How can I minimize harm to others? Are there legal concerns I need to be aware of with this story (such as libel or invasion of privacy)?

They communicate and create by outlining, writing, sketching, thinking, shooting, capturing, editing, publishing, discussing, posting and designing. They use their voices to draw attention to matters that affect their daily life and even to hold others accountable.

Journalism programs are as genuine as they come for teaching solid media literacy skills. This is where students can combine their “digital-native” drive to post and create while learning the skills they need to be effective and ethical communicators who can appreciate the consequences of what they publish and consume.

For those of us who work in journalism education, this is nothing new. But, we must do a better job of evangelizing to others and spreading the word about the real-life learning lab a journalism classroom is for training students to be a new generation of thinking media consumers. In an age when some decry “fake news” at every turn, it’s essential to remember the skills students learn in their journalism class will serve them (and society) long after they graduate.

 

Workshop delves into causes, solutions of ‘fake news’ & advocates for better media literacy

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We hear the term “fake news” a lot these days—everything from the president claiming that any negative news coverage of his administration is  “fake” to fanciful tales of sharks swimming through the flooded streets of Houston following Hurricane Harvey to a fictitious account of thousands of fraudulent ballots discovered in a warehouse in the run-up to last year’s election.

The term “fake news” seems to have lost some of its effect because it has taken on so many meanings. And yet the concept of “fake news” can have a lasting impact both on the audience that (sometimes unwittingly) shares and consumes it and on the democratic process itself.

The 13th annual Poynter/Kent State Media Ethics Workshop (held in September) delved into the topic of fake news. The daylong series of panels attempted to provide definition and refinement to the term “fake news” while seeking both to identify the problems it causes and to offer solutions that create a more information-critical journalistic community and citizenry. Panelists ranged from working journalists and editors to public relations practitioners, attorneys and educators.

The entire day is archived, and the workshop website even includes a lesson plan geared toward a high school audience. Each session is about 60 to 90 minutes long (except for the introductory and concluding remarks, which are much shorter). The video archive can be used either during class or for an out-of-class assignment. Below are a series of key takeaways and questions to drive students’ discussion.

Introductory Remarks (Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute)

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? What are some examples of each (either those mentioned during the presentation or others students can think of or find)? Why is the distinction between those two terms so important?

McBride identifies seven forms of fake news. Define each type and provide examples.

How is fake news like a virus? Using that analogy, what are its causes, and what are some potential treatments and solutions?

Fake News and Media Credibility: Can Trust be Restored? (Mandy Jenkins, Storyful & Mizell Stewart, USA Today)

How does a lack of trust in the news media influence whether people decide to share fake news?

What responsibility do the news media have to debunk fake news after it’s shared or published? Can debunking efforts indadvertedly draw more attention to fictitious claims?

As the panelists noted, people do tend to trust their local reporters more than national media. Yet today there are fewer and fewer local reporters because of financial cutbacks. How can fake news gain a stronghold in an environment where some important issues go uncovered and critical questions go unasked?

Those who spread fake news know how the news ecosystem works, and they figure out how to manipulate it. Where does fake news often originate? How does it end up affecting coverage on major news networks or being shared on communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

The panelists urged journalists to get away from their desks, leave the newsroom and talk to real people when reporting. How can more interaction with the public help journalists stop the spread of fake news?

Fake News and the 2016 Election (Ryan Claassen, Kent State; Michael Shearer, GateHouse Media; Gregory Korte, USA Today; Indira Lakshmanan, The Poynter Institute)

From a legal standpoint, publishers—such as news organizations—are responsible for the information they disseminate. Are social media platforms “publishers” or merely “carriers” of the content others post? Either way, what ethical responsibility do they bear for the information they transmit, even though it’s being posted and shared by users?

How do both the business model and structural background of social media platforms “reward” those who share fake news?

Despite their best effort, journalists will make mistakes from time to time. Do mistakes, while regrettable, count as “fake news”? In an environment where so many identify anything they disagree with as “fake,” why is accuracy in reporting more important than ever?

How have social media changed the way politicians can relate to and interact with the public? What effects have social media had on journalists’ gatekeeping function (both in terms of what the public knows and how it shares information)?

Define and discuss the debate over whether the news media should cover the president’s tweets.

Keynote: The Real Deal about Fake News (David Folkenflik, NPR)

When politicians and pundits use false information, how is the public affected?

What does Folkenflik say the role of journalists is? How does fake news complicate that mission?

How does fake news force news organizations to discuss and defend their own legitimacy both in the eyes of the public and the government?

What did Folkenflik mean by saying it’s important for news organizations to “do their homework in public”? How can this be done?

Detecting B.S.: How to Tell What’s True in Today’s Contested Reality (Demaso Reyes, News Literacy Project; Kendra Albright, Kent State; Alicia Calzada, attorney)

How do purveyors of false information play on emotion to get readers to react without thinking?

Why is it so important to consider the source behind material one finds online?

What responsibility do individuals have to verify what they see before sharing it? Is it wise to share something with a comment like, “I don’t know whether this is true, but I’ll sure be angry if it is”?

We focus significant effort on helping young people develop media literacy, but adults definitely need some training as well. How can we help adults develop media literacy habits, especially those with such entrenched beliefs that they’re willing to trust and share anything that confirms what they already believe?

Why is context for photos so important? What effect does an app like Instagram have for appreciating and understanding a photo’s context?

The Internet has certainly made sharing photos and videos much easier. As a journalist seeking to republish such content as part of a newsworthy event, what are some considerations to make when looking for photos online or accepting photos from users?

When should students begin learning media literacy? How should it fit into the curriculum? Should this be a discrete subject, or should it be integrated into other classes?

Fake News and PR: What to Do When Your Client is the Target (Michele Ewing, Kent State & Chas Withers, Dix & Eaton)

What’s the fundamental difference between public relations and journalism? To whom do each profession’s ultimate loyalties lie? What are some similarities between the two?

Public relations practitioners advocate on behalf of a business or client, such as a non-profit organization. If someone peddles fake news about one of those clients—like falsely claiming he or she became sick from eating a product the client sells—what effect can such a falsehood have on that company or organization’s image?

Even though public relations professionals advocate on behalf of a client, why are credibility and truth-telling in all of their communications so important?

Wrap-up: Where Do We Go From Here? (McBride & Lakshmanan, Poynter)

Lakshmanan talked of how the journalism profession needs its own public relations campaign so the public better understands the work journalists do and the methods they use to keep the public informed. What are some key points that need to be addressed in such a campaign?

This post is the first in series coinciding with the third annual U.S. Media Literacy Week hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Check back throughout the week for more posts exploring important, timely media & news literacy issues and questions. 

 

 

 

Constitution Day resources

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ConstitutionHappy Constitution Day! On Sept. 17, 1787, the original framers of the Constitution met
and added their signatures to the document they spent that summer writing, arguing and hashing out. Of course, just a few years later (1791), the document would include 10 amendments, the first of which is certainly near and dear to every scholastic journalism adviser and reporter. Since that time, the document has been amended 17 more times.

This day–celebrated on Sept. 18 this year because the original day fell on a weekend–provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the importance of a document that provides the basic structure for how our government operates today and one that has inspired people all over the world to work toward democracy.

Below are a list of resources that can help:

The Constitution Center

The Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Committee

The Bill of Rights Institute

The PBS NewsHour

The National Education Association

And all of this is not a minute too soon. A report released last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed a somewhat bleak picture of the country’s understanding of basic constitutional principles. This included 37 percent of Americans failing to name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment.

On a brighter note, this is the perfect reminder of the important work of teaching journalism and its role as a hands-on training course for better citizenship. And that’s a great Monday morning “pick-me-up.”

Breaking news about mindset, as evidenced in Hurricane Irma coverage

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Florida’s collegiate student media have had a busy few days, no doubt. As Hurricane Irma slammed into their local communities, the staffs used their reporting know-how to keep their readers informed and safe. Their work provides examples others can emulate when covering breaking-news situations in their local communities as well as providing a means for advisers to introduce this topic to their new students.

Developing the right mindset. At its core, “breaking news” can best be described as a set of practices that journalists use to provide accurate information in a timely manner through the most relevant channels possible. The web has certainly opened new possibilities to enable information delivery in real time.

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Capturing storm damage tells a basic story about the situation. Photo from The Miami Hurricane.

A larger story, such as a natural disaster, has many angles. First off, it’s important to document what’s happening. This can be as simple as creating a photo gallery or video. See examples from The Miami Hurricane (University of Miami) and The Independent Florida Alligator (University of Florida).

 

Sometimes the audience simply needs practical information like a list of supplies or a list of places where students could find shelter on or near campus. And those information needs change and adapt as the story morphs and progresses. After the storm passes, students needed to know when classes would resume and how the storm’s aftermath would affect their normal activities. For instance, which businesses are open?

Crowd sourcing is essential. Reporters can’t be everywhere. The crowd can be your

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Share images from reporters and readers alike to give more perspective. Photo from The Miami Hurricane Twitter account. 

eyes and ears. Using and sharing their images, video and stories can be helpful in creating a more complete picture of coverage. Of course, this is where you must exercise due diligence to avoid getting duped by fake images and exaggerated information.

Try new things. Don’t be afraid to branch out to find new ways to reach your audience. The Miami Hurricane staff used a live blog for reporters to post accounts throughout the weekend from wherever they rode out the storm, either on campus or off.

All of these examples are meant to provide ideas for your own coverage of breaking news in your local communities. After all, we can learn much from the work of others. For more insights, see this earlier post.

 

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