Editor’s Note: “Ethics in 140 Characters” was selected as one of the 2017 “Top 25” Great Ideas for Teachers (GIFT) entries through the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Readers want the latest information at their fingertips, and if journalists delay uploading breaking news, they risk losing readers, viewers or followers. More eyeballs and more page views mean more advertising revenue, and this, in turn, means journalists need to disseminate developing news before their competitors.
As newsrooms integrate and converge, employers are looking for young professionals who are comfortable working as social media journalists, who don’t just know how to write or edit but also how to tweet and upload videos, images, audio clips or hyperlinks within tweets effectively, and in a timely manner.
Job postings confirm newsrooms are seeking social media experts to share news on tight deadlines, but at the same time, these experts must possess strong news judgment, editing skills and a sound knowledge of journalistic ethics. This college classroom activity was built to incorporate each of these elements using Twitter as a platform for students to practice these crucial skills.
What Does This Mean For Journalism Students?
There is clearly a need to add interactive social media assignments in multi-platform reporting classes or within basic courses like introduction to writing for journalism and public relations, particularly to address these larger questions:
- Is knowing how to use hashtags and send a tweet good enough?
- Should journalists be extra careful when tweeting to make sure facts are accurate, relevant people are quoted, searchable hashtags are used, and the right people are tagged?
- What about verifying hyperlinks to see if they lead to a fake news site, a satire or a genuine news item?
- How does one fit it all in into 140 characters?
The Assignment—Who, What & Where
Students in my Multiplatform Reporting class are assigned to cover an event, ideally one where people from different cultures are likely to be present (e.g.: an interfaith breakfast, a Not in Our Town meeting, a gathering hosted by the university’s multicultural affairs department, or an event where people from different groups are scheduled to speak or perform).
Students are required to tweet live from the event at least 10 times. They are graded on:
- Answering the 5Ws & H in combined tweets (who, what, when, where, why, how)
- Reporting without being offensive, slanderous
- Use of journalistic routines (e.g., accuracy, verification, relevance)
- Reporting facts; opinions can be only be expressed through source quotes
The Assignment—When & How
Students are then provided further guidelines about how to tweet:
- At least six to seven tweets have to focus on main issue/focus of event
- Up to four tweets can be on peripheral issues, but have to make sense to readers reading combined tweets later
- At least two have to be retweets with added student comments
- One tweet needs to have a verbatim quote from a speaker
- One tweet needs to have an embedded image with added comment complementing the image
Before the assignment, the students and the instructor agree on a specific hashtag to be used for all tweets pertaining to the assignment (e.g.: #Interfaith2017 OR #EndRacismNY). Students are also told to check Twitter constantly during the event. By doing this, they can see who else is tweeting about the event, so they can tag some of those people in their own tweets, or even retweet newsworthy people (e.g.: the mayor, a college president, a politician, etc.)
— Mariah (@mariahtvpaw3) April 5, 2017
Takeaways, Application after Twitter Assignment
During the next class time (50- or 75-minute classes), we discussed what they learned, such as the importance of writing concise, yet factually correct, sentences. Students also mentioned the value in following journalistic norms and routines in real time and understanding the importance of self-editing, since tweets may be retweeted just a few seconds before they are deleted.
Other takeaways included understanding how it felt when every word written was under public scrutiny and how to use keywords and upload images or audio files with tweets.
Based on their experiences during the assignment, students then formed small groups (three or four people in each, depending on class size) to discuss what their experience taught them about possible ethical issues and challenges journalists face when tweeting live, along with what steps could be taken to manage those concerns.
Some of the ideas that emerged from last semester’s class were fascinating. One group wanted to know if ethical guidelines for social media reporting should be more stringent than those for print and television reporting, since tweets reached a wider audience at a much faster pace than legacy media. Another group felt social media, such as Twitter, gave individual journalists more power to influence audiences and therefore rules should be constructed for posting on social media in an official capacity.
Other student suggestions for ethical tweeting:
- Being aware of the source of an original tweet or piece of information to verify if it was a credible source or a joke or fake.
- Reading beyond the headline of a story before tweeting it to make sure the headline was not misleading.
- Making sure reporters had supporting images, audio bytes or credible quotes to support any statement or claim they were making on Twitter.
All the tweets for the assignment from spring 2017 can be accessed here.
Dhiman Chattopadhyay is a former journalist from India with nearly two decades of experience, first as a news reporter, and later as an editor/senior editor with leading news organizations such as the Times of India, Business Today and Mid-Day. Currently a doctoral candidate at Bowling Green State University, his research examines how social media platforms have affected journalistic gatekeeping practices, and he explores sustainable strategies that can help news organizations regain public trust while continuing to use social media as a professional tool.