|Those who predict the death of literacy are wrong. It’s just taken a different form, being condensed into 140 characters. And it goes by the name “social media.”
That is how many people communicate today — by text message, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace and other electronic forums. Email is still around, but it’s soooo 20th century.
Statesman Journal Executive Editor Bill Church and I met Sept. 28 with several people to talk about the ethics of social media. That’s an important issue for editorial writers and other journalists as plunge into social media.
The participants — public figures, PR types and a college newspaper editor — generally agreed that texts, tweets and posts are fair game for reporting … as long as they’re accurate.
Most traditional news organizations have codes of ethics. A key provision is the necessity of having arms-length relationships with sources. For example, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, who has sometimes lectured to the journalistic writing classes I teach at Willamette University, always stresses that he and I are not friends. We interact because he’s a politician and I’m a journalist.
I like Courtney, but I have no compunction about criticizing him when appropriate. And like most politicians, he will try to use the media for his purposes.
Those definitions may be murkier in the online world.
When I “follow” Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Twitter or Facebook, will readers assume I therefore support his policies? In my mind, I’m using the social media as reporting tools.
Twitter is a nifty way for me to take notes at a public meeting. I’m simply sharing my information and observations with the public — instantly. And, the compiled tweets are easier for me to read later than my antiquated cursive. But what if my observations run counter to an editorial I write on behalf of the editorial board; is that confusing to the reader?
I don’t think it’s a problem for me to spout my opinions, within reason, on Twitter — I’m paid for having an opinion — but is it OK for a reporter to share his opinions? In 140 characters — the limit for a Twitter message, or tweet — should you cite your sources, as you would in a news story?
Education reporter Stefanie Knowlton and I “tweeted” the Sept. 27 Salem-Keizer School District budget committee meeting, but we did so differently in light of our independent roles.
She’s facts; I’m opinion.
She distributed statements and information that came up at the meeting.
I did, too, but I also added my observations — and I tried to note the difference. A traditionalist, I believe that similar ethics standards should apply online as in print. (One exception is how the online world, to my chagrin, has embraced CB radio-style “handles” to protect anonymity.)
Here’s one of my factual tweets from Tuesday, quoting Superintendent Sandy Husk: “Poverty - not race, non-English language or special ed - is greatest obstacle to student achievement. -- SKSD Supt. Husk #SalemOR #KeizerOR”
Here’s an opinionated tweet: “I’m surprised SKSD isn’t tweeting during the budget meeting to get info out, get community involved. #SalemOR #KeizerOR”
The phrases “#SalemOR” and “#KeizerOR” are hashtags, which enable people on Twitter to quickly search for topics they’re interested in.
And yes, I’m convinced that an agency, nonprofit or business is making a big mistake if it’s not active in social media. Even the U.S. military, often characterized as slow to change, has embraced the value of instantaneous communication. (That was one of the things I learned at the NCEW Convention in Kansas City.)
Twitter, Facebook and the like are effective ways to quickly disseminate news, to quell rumors and to refer people to more in-depth information in print or online formats.
Some people scoff at 140 characters, questioning whether anything of value can be transmitted within that limitation. However, journalists have been writing in fewer characters for centuries: Most headlines are far shorter.
Much can be conveyed in a few words, whether a headline, a bumper sticker or a tweet. Granted, they don’t replace a full-fledged, in-depth report. But I’m impressed with how quickly and effectively the younger generations can communicate via social media, having invented their own shorthand.
When I was in the Washington, D.C., area this spring for the NCEW State Department briefing, social media alerted me to the killing of Osama bin Laden in time to write an editorial for the next day’s print Statesman Journal. Had I waited for traditional media to confirm his death before starting my reporting, I would have blown deadline. Twitter gave me the head start on gathering background and formulating my thoughts.
I love that readers can follow me on Twitter or Facebook, sharing ideas and commenting on early drafts of editorials and my columns.
We all need good editors, even in 140 characters.
Dick Hughes, who prefers Twitter to Facebook, is editorial page editor of the Statesman Journal. Contact him at dhughes@StatesmanJournal.com; P.O. Box 13009, Salem, OR 97309; or (503) 399-6727. Read his blog at StatesmanJournal.com/DickHughes or follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @DickHughes.
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