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?

 

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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.

A short list of post-mortem resources about the 2016 presidential election

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The 2016 presidential election might be over, but its ramifications are only beginning. The entire campaign–and the past week following the election, especially–have been marked by the exchange of razor-sharp opinions from all sides. Protests continue throughout the country, and some wonder how the next administration will shape public policy. This campaign and election tested and stretched the bounds of normalcy in an already ravenous political environment.

As journalism educators and publication advisers, this moment provides an opportunity to explore changing audience demographics, viewers’ use of technology, the purpose of political journalism and campaign reporting, and the importance of news literacy.

What follows is a short list of resources to use in class to help students better understand news coverage surrounding the election and its aftermath. This list is by no means exhaustive but only serves as a starting point for the exchange of ideas, discussion and debate.

The forces that drove this election’s media failure are only likely to get worse by Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab

This article examines the underlying assumptions about how social norms and expectations in the journalism profession and on the business side of the media industry contributed to the reporting about the election and candidates throughout the past year. The author discusses the rise and prevalence of “fake” stories that spread easily through social media and do more to shape some viewers’ opinions than truthful reporting does. The article also examines the “echo-chamber” effect of social media that leads some readers to select stories and surround themselves with information that confirms what they already believe.

Here’s to the return of journalists as malcontent by Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review

Building off the point in the piece above, this article discusses the importance of journalists cultivating sources beyond spokespeople and seeking input from those with whom they have fundamental differences of opinion and perspective. The lessons here are essential for scholastic journalism students and reporters, who must accurately capture the voice of their audience who largely cannot yet vote but will be affected by the outcome of any election. For more about these points,  this piece offers some further guidance to journalists to reach beyond their comfort zones and to find deeper, more meaningful perspectives from a wider range of sources.

How the 2016 campaign changed political journalism by Kristen Hare and Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute

This campaign changed political journalism by usurping the status quo and forcing journalists and editors to confront new realities about dealing with sources, relating to their audiences, and being more transparent about their decision-making processes. Some members of the public even challenged the work and role of journalists through threats and intimidation. Twenty journalists and media critics have offered their observations about how this campaign season has shaped and changed the norms of political journalism.

As seen on TV: For the TV-less viewer, live election night shows abound, on any number of screens by Shan Wang of Nieman Lab

This piece is a post-mortem on the variety of coverage available on election night as the results rolled in. In an effort reach further segmented portions of their audiences, even traditional outlets (like television networks) offered some online component to both draw and serve viewers who were more comfortable with that medium. Online-exclusive platforms offered even more options to viewers and additional competition to traditional outlets. Students must stay up-to-date with the opportunities for deeper and richer storytelling using a variety of platforms. Examples like these can generate more ideas.

How could polling be so wrong? by Steven Shepard of Politico & Four possible reasons the polls got it so wrong this year by Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR

Polling, when conduced scientifically, can provide an illustrative picture of public opinion. Yet, like any information-gathering tool, it does have its drawbacks and limitations. These articles explore some of the reasons why the polls seemed so “off” in their predictions that Hillary Clinton would win the election. Understanding how polls work and why they sometimes fall short of their fullest potential can enable journalists to better harness their power in the future.

These are a small sample of the available materials to use for class discussion, and other issues deserve attention as well. Among them, the president-elect’s attitudes and comments about the First Amendment and its protections for a free press. But we’ll explore that in another post.

 

Web turns 25; story ideas, discussion points abound

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The Web turns 25 this week. The sweeping technological and subsequent social transformations since that time are daunting to describe. Everyday interactions among friends and family are now often mediated through a screen. Major social institutions like businesses and schools continue to incorporate the never-ending evolution of technology into their day-to-day operating practices.

While some celebrate the connections the Web enables through the exchange of information and ideas across time and cultural boundaries, others are quick to point out privacy concerns and a fear that an overreliance on technology negatively alters the social landscape.

This link contains a discussion from Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour about technological, social and cultural implications of life in the age of the Internet. The points the panelists raised provide ample starting ground for story ideas that scholastic publications can localize or for class discussion about media literacy issues.

Mobile technology in the future of scholastic journalism

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First the news industry went digital. Now it goes mobile. As technologies develop, people find new ways to gather, produce, distribute and consume news and information.

These changes require a new mindset about how to approach journalism. This article aggregates tips from top mobile industry producers, including The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and Hearst Magazines, about the practical steps a news organization can take to become “mobile first.”

As the industry changes, it begs the question about how mobile journalism fits into scholastic publications. So many are still finding solid ground with digital and social media. However, as teens are prolific smart phone users, mobile could open new paths to reaching audiences.

However, what was most telling about this story was a quote at the end from David Ho, editor of mobile, tablets and emerging technology at The Wall Street Journal. He pointed out that mobile is just the beginning. Information technologies will continue to evolve—watches, glasses, and other wearable computers. Journalists of future years will continually need to learn new skills to adapt to these technologies. As such, journalism educators will continue to refine their craft to be able to educate students effectively for these changing environments.