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?



Incident at Ohio State holds valuable lessons about storytelling, breaking news

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Reaching your audience is all about telling an engaging story. As technology has evolved, the tools available to tell stories have expanded exponentially. Journalists and other communicators now have the ability use tools that enhance parts of their messages (visual, auditory or text) in ways that didn’t exist even a few years ago. These changes necessitate the need for urgency to publish information, especially when stories are changing minute by minute.

As students at Ohio State were returning from Thanksgiving break, a student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk, got out and began stabbing passers-by. Within minutes, campus police responded and shot the suspect. A university-wide text alert said an active shooter was on campus and students were asked to shelter in place.

This story, which quickly gained national attention, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling and breaking news coverage. This article, told through the perspectives of student editors at The Lantern (Ohio State’s student newspaper) details how the publication’s staff reacted to the news and spent the next few hours and days providing coverage. It’s also illustrative in the lessons it teaches about storytelling.

As a student publication, it’s essential to “own” the coverage of your school. That doesn’t just apply to major breaking news events. It includes the mundane parts of everyday life. But whenever your school is involved in a major news event, your publication needs to be on top of it. Students and others should be able to look to your publication as a primary source of information and updates.

It can be tough to balance the demands of breaking news coverage with the realities of school life, but it’s an essential skill to learn. Create procedures and plans that rely on a chain of command to assign responsibilities when news breaks. You may never have to deal with a school shooting, but other stories demand immediate coverage. Even the students at Ohio State prepared for this very scenario in a class exercise just a few weeks before. Little did they know how soon they’d have to use what they’ve learned.

Storytelling happens now. Audience engagement is at its highest when news first breaks because people are looking for information so they can understand what’s happening. As time passes, they look for more context to enable them to make sense of what’s happened. No matter what type of publication you have, your online presence enables you to keep your audience informed as the story evolves.

First you plan, and then you amend. The Lantern publishes in print several times per week. Tuesday was one of its print days. The staff tore up their plans for the next day’s paper and reworked the layouts to adapt to the breaking story. Their coverage included multi-faceted approaches that spanned a range of digital and print coverage over the following days that not only provided a summary of events but explored reactions and fallout.

Breaking news demands quick thinking. One of the editors dropped what he was doing to get to the scene. Another made the decision to work remotely because commuting back to campus would have proved prohibitive (roads were shut down around campus) and the travel time would have wasted valuable opportunities to cultivate sources and plan coverage with other reporters on the ground.

Any breaking news environment is prone to rumor and confusion. Part of your job as reporters is to dispel rumors and to provide clear, accurate information. Never overstate and be open about what you don’t know. It’s tough sometimes for the truth to win out amid so many conflicting ideas, but it’s a necessary fight. The Lantern staff worked to dispel rumors—that an active shooter was on campus (compounded by the campus text alert), that the shooter had an accomplice, that several students had died, and that someone purposefully pulled a fire alarm to get students outside prior to the attack.

For more guidance, consult On the Media’s guide for breaking news. Planning today will make your job easier when the time arrives to put it to use.

Book proposes “new ethics” for digital age

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As journalism educators, teaching ethics must be central to every class and production program. The decisions journalists make, including student journalists, do affect those they cover. However, how do ethical principles grow and change as the news industry evolves?

The core ethical values of the journalistic profession are often summed up by the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics: seek the truth and report it, act independently, minimize harm and be accountable. Those values served the profession well during a time when journalists and editors acted as gatekeepers to funnel information to the public. If news was a conversation, it was generally one-way, and journalists did most of the talking.

However, as technologies have enabled audiences to participate in the creation of news as well as define, shape and influence the news agenda, do those values change? Should they?

In a collection of essays by top media ethicists, scholars and practitioners in their book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, editors Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute and Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute have proposed adjusting the set of core principles described above to include the following: seek the truth and report it as fully as possible, be transparent, and engage the community as an end, rather than a means. The book’s purpose, from the editors’ words in the introduction, “is an attempt to look at what’s happening in journalism in the early part of the 21st century, to define and articulate new tensions that challenge journalism’s core principles, and to suggest practices that further truth and community in service of democracy.”

 The book’s premise rests on the technological changes that drive how journalism is created and delivered. As is well evident by now, the economic model that once supported news outlets (advertisers footing the lion’s share of the bill to create and deliver the news in a quest for eyeballs) has since passed. Digital technologies make information more accessible, and the audience plays a central role in creating and shaping the news. The digital platforms themselves serve as a primary means for disseminating information. How they are used and who controls access to them can profoundly affect what the audience knows.

However, the editors noted those core values from the SPJ Code mentioned above remain inscribed in this new list of guiding principles. Those original values have expanded to encompass new ethical questions of the digital age. Things have changed, indeed. As the essays in the book discuss, audience members can now submit content. Who’s responsible for vetting its authenticity? Organizations like PolitiFact seek to add more context and information to nation’s political dialogue. But do all the claims politicians and pundits make fall into a true/false, right/wrong dichotomy? If Internet service providers can give preferential treatment to some information services over others, how will that affect the flow of information and social learning? What are the best practices for issuing corrections for erroneous information posted online, given how far and how fast information spreads?

The essays, which represent a variety of viewpoints and approaches by a community of scholars, can be summed up as follows:

  • Seek and report the truth. Searching for the truth is still the highest aim of the profession. Adhering to that value separates journalists from those who seek to spin or pursue their own agenda. However, finding and deciphering the truth amid an endless stream of voices and noise can become more difficult. Truth can range on a spectrum from recounting facts—like the number of people killed in a car crash—to the more abstract of deciphering meaning—what does the verdict in a contentious trail say about equity in the criminal justice system? Journalists can help direct people through the myriad of voices and information available today.
  • Be transparent. Transparency becomes even more paramount now that almost anyone can produce content for the world to see. Journalism now comes from numerous sources beyond traditional news outlets guided by public service: think tanks, advocacy organizations and partisan pundits. These groups bring angles and agendas to their reporting. However, their work can be a legitimate source of information, as long as the public understands the methods used to create it and the sources used to fund it. The public can also more easily question, scrutinize and discuss the work of journalists through social media and other digital tools. The book’s editors argue that adhering to more transparent newsgathering practices actually increases the public service function of journalism by allowing the audience to understand better how the news was researched and produced.

  • Engage the community as an end in itself. The community adds voices to the mix and plays a central role throughout the news cycle. Journalists need to find ways to respect and nurture that community to foster more openness and sharing as a means of creating better content. As the editors put it, creating and fostering community is an end in itself, not an end to something else (such as getting more “likes” for the organization’s social media pages).

Application to journalism education. This book issues a call to journalism educators, both at the scholastic and collegiate level, to re-examine their teaching methods regarding ethics. I’m a firm believer ethical fitness is a skill students learn best through practice. Adhering to core principles enables the profession to establish credibility by maintaining high standards that respect how journalism and newsgathering affect those covered in the news.

But, as the process of researching and distributing the news changes, educators must address new realities about the nature of the news industry in order to enable students to perform journalism ethically. Seeking the truth and reporting it is still journalism’s cornerstone. Yet, adapting one’s ethical philosophy to encompass the consequences of the evolving interactions of journalists, the audience and technology will be paramount for creating thinking, effective communicators.