Teach a little, learn a loT
Social media has had such a profound effect on journalism that it's sometimes hard to remember how traditional news functioned before it. Reading this 2009 MediaShift article is a powerful reminder that Twitter wasn't always the source of breaking news. In fact, as author Julie Posetti wrote just eight years ago, "Some employers are either so afraid of the platform or so disdainful about its journalistic potential that they've tried to bar their reporters from even accessing Twitter in the workplace."
Not accessing Twitter in the newsroom? It's laughable now. Yet for some high school newsrooms, this is still the case. Overzealous school policies banning the use of various forms of social media and cell phones at school cripple student journalists who need to learn these tools in order to survive and thrive in our new media world.
However, setting students loose with social media journalism without strong guidelines is just as problematic. Just as professional news producers such as NPR have developed thorough social media policies, advisers should work with their student edition board to develop a robust social media policy for their own publications.
A place to start when tackling this task is to look to professional models like NPR's. This recap of a 2014 panel about the ethics of social media news is another good resource. For scholastic guidance, check out JEA's SPRC’s foundation materials or this 2012 Social Media Toolbox masters project — though a bit dated, it still contains some great lessons and ideas. For help convincing administration of the value of social media in the newsroom, Quill & Scroll's Principal's Guide to Scholastic Journalism has a strong rationale and additional resources.
As you develop your guidelines, however, it's important to consider both sides of social media journalism: not only how to use it as a tool to share information or report a breaking story, but also how to use it as a reporter seeking information — the importance of verification so not to spread misinformation. For this second part of the equation, the Columbia Journalism Review's "Best Practices for Social Media Verification" and the Online News Association's Social Newsgathering Ethics Code are good places to start.
Our student journalists deserve to use the same tools as the professionals, but they also need the same caliber of ethics and responsible practices to guide them. These guidelines must be specific, yet flexible, as social media platforms are constantly evolving. With guidance for how to post to social media as a journalist and how to use it as a reporting tool, students will be uniquely poised to take new media journalism to places we can't yet even imagine.
One of the biggest challenges I face as a journalism adviser is convincing my students that email interviews need to be a last resort rather than their go-to.
I get it — emails are quick and easy. Write a few questions, get responses in complete sentences back. No need to transcribe or deal with awkward verbal phrasings. Seems like a no-brainer. In a 2003 Poynter article, Jonathan Dube outlined some of the benefits of email interviews, then a relatively new journalistic tool: saving time, being efficient, creating a written record, providing time for the source to think and prepare, and working with people in different time zones or who write English better than they speak it.
But he also pointed out potential pitfalls: not knowing who is replying (is this actually the superintendent, or did she just hand it off to an assistant?), not being able to follow up with more questions based on the direction of the interview, losing control of the interview transcript, missing out on body language and verbal cues that might provide more insight, and — ultimately — ending up with an interview that is unlikely to provide revealing or new information.
These last reasons are especially important for interviews where students are doing more than just “covering” (providing info the community likely already knows) — if they want to uncover information, they will be best served by face-to-face interviews. You can find out what the soccer game score was or verify the spelling of a name in an email. If you want to dig deeper, though, you need to have a conversation.
I think back to when I wrote a profile of yearbook adviser guru H.L. Hall’s contributions to the ASNE Reynolds summer journalism workshops. I could have sent Hall a list of questions, and I’m sure he would have sent me thoughtful answers back, but I wouldn’t have heard him describe the perfect winter morning or sing the first song he and his wife ever danced to (“It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards). I wouldn’t have been able to ask about why he walks every morning before the sun comes up, even on the coldest Missouri winter mornings, or how these early-morning walks contribute to his boundless energy in adviser workshops. I wouldn’t have the sense of him as a person that I did by the end of that hour. These kinds of conversations bring life and vitality to profiles.
Face-to-face interviews are also invaluable in situations when student journalists are conducting investigations. Gordana Igric’s 2010 "Tips for successful investigative journalism” outlines many suggestions, including the vital importance of conducting thoughtful, thorough research before talking with a source, but she’s very clear about interview formats: "Interviews in person are always preferable. If that's not possible, then speaking by phone is also fine but never — unless there is no other option — interview by email. If you do, make clear in the copy that any quotes you use were obtained by email."
This tip is especially important when interviewing sources who might want to obfuscate the truth. "Schedule interviews with potentially hostile or evasive subjects for near the end of your research as you will be better prepared to question and challenge their remarks,” Igric writes. Journalists may be left with nothing more than talking points or inaccurate assertions if they rely solely on email.
For all these reasons, I make my students’ lives harder — but their reporting better — by “just saying no” to email interviews. If journalism’s social role in a democratic society is to uncover truth, journalists must take the time to seek that truth in person.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream