In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

The Five W'sIn a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, our words demand special consideration before displaying them in public.

For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and preserve credibility.

So, consider putting patience high on your list of obligations each time you write online. Armed with it, writers and editors are more likely to catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding that patience. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help to install social media speed bumps — a set of objectives that forces introspection. If you’re not sure where to start with that, employ journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Although social media networks permit users to put followers into groups, most users don’t do that. The result: their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances where one post intended for a particular group of followers insults or offends all the others. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly. Make certain whether you’re eschewing or embracing conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume that the faster we post, the more likely other people will think we’re reporting “news.” Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” were just as important as the information itself. In reality, no newspaper stopped printing and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we believe Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have the same audiences, the same reach. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

(A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Freelance Journalist, a blog managed by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

7 reasons why your company should hire a journalist

You should hire a journalistTwenty years ago, the market for journalism soared. Print circulation reached all-time highs, and newspaper owners were flush with cash. Ten years ago, cracks appeared in the media industry’s wings and profits began to plummet.

Today, major media firms, battling to stay aloft, are jettisoning newspaper holdings like old socks. Many of the seasoned journalists who gave these firms credibility were jettisoned long before that.

What a waste — and what an opportunity for American business.

Because more than ever, information is currency. Employees who can find information, analyze it, disseminate it, and do all of these things objectively, have far more value than those who merely copy and paste it. And journalists do much more than just gather information; they’re trained to explain why that information matters to you.

Experienced journalists provide a return on investment, and companies that recognize the value of people who can process information instead of just repeat it hold clear advantages in the marketplace.

So, when you’re searching for someone who can turn information into gold, consider these seven reasons why a journalist may be the best person for that job.

They’re good at research — There’s a joke that says the best place to hide a corpse is on the second page of a Google search. In their quest for accurate, timely information, journalists dig much deeper than the algorithms of a search engine or a social media platform can. They understand that data lie as well as inform. Only hard research and investigation reveal the distinction.

They value accuracy — The Delete key is not anyone’s friend or savior. It only removes what’s on the screen; it does not remove false or inaccurate information from either archival or human memory. Journalists understand that accuracy begets credibility, and correct information up front forms the foundation of sound business judgment.

They have institutional memory — Today’s college graduates have lived their lives enmeshed in the Web, but not all answers to life’s questions reside there. Journalists with 15 to 20 years’ experience remember digging for data by hand — sifting through dusty file cabinets and interviewing people in person. A lot of that information still isn’t online, yet these journalists recall it because, according to researchers, we tend to remember information that was difficult instead of easy to obtain.

They appreciate deadlines — When print media was dominant, journalists had only a few times each day to convey information. This forced them to focus, to plan, to be efficient. In today’s never-ending news cycle, every moment holds deadline potential, but having so many opportunities increases the likelihood of hesitation, delay, and a lack of appreciation for deadlines. Put another way, when every moment is special, then no moment is special. Journalists appreciate the value of a moment.

They are persistent — To borrow from tennis champion Billie Jean King, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Good, responsible journalism requires the same approach. Truth resides somewhere beneath the surface of an issue, and so to get at truth requires dodging or occasionally plowing through obstructions. A journalist who is able to carve out that path does so with razor-sharp intellect.

They are ethical — There are better paying jobs than journalism, but no journalist I know entered the profession for the money. They value the power of words and are imbued with an innate sense of justice, they cherish the watchdog role that comes with being a journalist, and they respect the profession and their employers by being accountable for their actions.

They have compassion — Besides showing accountability, good journalists respect their audiences. The information that journalists gather and disseminate is for the benefit of those audiences, not their own egos or their own brand, and serving those audiences demands powerful responsibility. With good information culled from reports and research, the public can make educated decisions. So, too, can employers.

Imagine how successful a business could be with proven, committed employees such as journalists on its payroll.

Ted Cruz is wrong about Net neutrality

Net neutrality logoThe last thing any of us need is someone in a position of influence explaining Net neutrality but who doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand Net neutrality.

Yet, Ted Cruz has decided to do it anyway.

The junior Republican senator from Texas trumpeted his mischaracterization of the issue last week in the Washington Post opinion piece, “Regulating the Internet threatens entrepreneurial freedom,” in which he champions the idea that online innovation suffers unless the Internet is devoid of federal oversight.

The term “devoid” is not overstatement. Cruz prefers that Washington leave the Internet entirely in the hands of the legislative process, where service providers, market forces and special interests hold sway. To this end, he urges nullification of all Internet regulation, now framed within Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

In Cruz’s mind, Net neutrality “would put the government in charge of Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”

In fact, Net neutrality refers to the Internet as it is now: a place where service providers and government agencies treat all online data equally and access is unlimited; a place where the powerless have as much influence as the powerful; a place where startup businesses can grow into corporations without monopolistic interference.

The issue became a big deal in April when the Federal Communications Commission agreed to consider a two-tiered system where Internet providers can set arbitrary rules on access. Then in May, the FCC also agreed to consider reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, which would prevent providers from threatening to reduce access in exchange for fees.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

President Obama supports reclassification. Cruz however believes the providers should be in control because reclassification is just a nice way of saying the government will levy an Internet use tax. He has even gone as far as calling Net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet,” a catchy little phrase that possesses a certain rubbery, pejorative quality certain to help it bounce around the Web for a while.

Never mind that it misrepresents both Net neutrality and Obamacare; Cruz is a Princeton and Harvard grad, a champion debater and a loyal partisan toady. Conservative straw polls rank him high among likely GOP presidential nominees in 2016.

It would tarnish Cruz’s carefully honed image for him to appear on the same side of an issue as the president. So, it makes more sense for him to mangle Net neutrality’s definition than risk political capital.

To be fair, the term “Net neutrality” is sufficiently vague enough that anyone with a flair for drama and self-promotion can abuse it with ease. One could easily argue that the term also means you’re indifferent about what happens to Internet.

If only it had a better name. Comedian John Oliver suggests that maybe Net neutrality’s working title should be more honest: “Preventing Cable Company F**kery.”

But that might be too honest for Ted Cruz.

You won’t believe what this journalist did using clickbait

Clickbait IconSee? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or fewer, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

(A version of this post appears at KolbeCo.net.)

5 steps to S.M.A.R.T. social media use

S.M.A.R.T. iconTo most people, social media is mere fun and games ― a means of killing time and staying in constant contact whether they need that contact or not.

But social media is serious stuff in the workplace. Saying the wrong thing online, even one word, can harm your reputation and bruise your employer’s image.

That’s why employers are busy creating policy to protect themselves and their workers from assorted threats and intimidation. But policy is useless in thwarting ignorance.

People misuse social media mainly because they misunderstand it. They think social media is just technology. In fact, it’s a window others reach through to influence you, just as you influence others.

That’s because social media “sees” you. It does this by drawing a picture based on your willingness to tell everyone where you are, what you’re doing and what you’re thinking.

Thus, the more you interact with social media, the more it knows about you. And the more everyone else knows about you.

So, keep in mind, responsible social behavior isn’t a matter of policy. It’s a matter of maturity. The more mature you are, the less likely you will get yourself, and your employer, into trouble.

Think of it this way, because it’s true: The best guide to good social media policy stares at you in the mirror every morning.

Be S.M.A.R.T about social media by observing these 5 guidelines:

S= Separation ― Try to keep your professional media use separate from your personal media use. For example, connect to friends and family with your default Facebook page, but create a business page for work-related posts.

If the content calls for it, you can embed links between the two. But try to maintain a distinction, and try to maintain distinct Twitter, Pinterest profiles, too.

M= Meaning ― Make sure you say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t type and send right away. Type and stop, and wait for a total of 2 minutes. Re-read what you’ve written, think about how it’s written and whether it says what you want.

Remember, you are your own best editor.

A= Attitude ― Measure your mood because it will come through your writing. Don’t use social media when you’re:

  • Angry
  • Sleepy
  • Hungry
  • Drunk

These are the four behaviors when you’re most vulnerable.

R= Responsiveness ― Answer promptly, or don’t answer at all. If you can answer within a minute or an hour, great. Being prompt is a measure of respect and politeness. After 24 hours, however, others perceive the long delay as an insult, no matter your excuse.

T= Timing ― Be aware of what’s going on around you. Pay attention to office politics, current events, anything that shapes a public conversation. Then, be ready to respond ― or not respond ― to what’s happening in the proper context. Say the right thing at the right time.

Another “T” related to Timing is:

T= Taste ― Context is king; taste is queen. Minding the former helps assure the latter. And timing is crucial to both.

(Editor’s note: This was the central theme of a presentation I gave to the Community Service Public Relations Council of St. Louis on July 9.)

KMOV: Setting a bad example

KMOV logoFrom the first day of my course in basic journalism at Lindenwood University last semester, I hammered into my students’ heads the importance of accuracy in reporting.

It was an essential part of my lectures, my assignments and my grading system ― so much so that the students were ordered to supply me with contact information for the sources in each of their stories. Any detail they cited had to be referenced, and that reference had to have an email address or phone number attached for me to verify.

If doubt trumped veracity, their grades suffered. Heavily.

“Accuracy is at the core of your credibility,” I said and posted in a PowerPoint presentation. “Subtract that and you’re less of a journalist, less of a professional.”

I wonder now if I should extend a formal invitation to the reporting staff of KMOV-TV to take my course. Because recent events involving the CBS affiliate have put into question its appreciation of accuracy in reporting.

The first event, profiled here last month, involved former KMOV news anchor Larry Conners, who stirred protest and scuttled his job by alleging via Facebook that the Internal Revenue Service was harassing him because of an interview in April 2012 with President Barack Obama that Conners believed put the president on the defensive.

Conners admitted in the Facebook post he had no proof but neglected to mention that his issues with the IRS went back at least four years before the interview. The station soon fired Conners, accusing him of harboring bias and dragging KMOV’s name through his speculation.

Conners insists he was just doing his job. He’s busy now however leveling another accusation, having filed a discrimination suit against KMOV on a peripheral matter.

Event No. 2 blew through Twitter on Friday evening as tornadic winds bounded between St. Charles and St. Louis, followed by a flood of tweets saying KMOV had reported on television around 8:30 that a “mass casualty” event involved a storm-wrecked hotel in the storm’s path.

The phrase echoed ominously across social media as the Twitterverse awaited a citable source from KMOV confirming the destruction. No other news provider offered similar reports or alternate confirmation, and at least one wondered openly where KMOV was getting its information. Meanwhile, social media watchers said KMOV kept repeating the frightening words on the air.

KMOV began backing away from its initial televised report about 30 minutes later, but not before changing the location of destruction and leaving St. Louis County authorities and representatives of the hotels that were named to assuage fears via their own social media. By then, the storm seemed secondary on Twitter to KMOV’s own hasty, alarming damage assessment.

Twitterers continued hurling brickbats at the station well into the next day. Even social media maven Andy Carvin of National Public Radio weighed in.

“Yet another twitter rumor spread because of poor initial reporting by mainstream media,” he tweeted Saturday.

Though KMOV never explained itself, the initial report of mass storm casualties was thought to be inspired by a vague understanding of dialog emanating from a police scanner ― historically, an unreliable source for factual information. You would think KMOV already knew this.

“Police reporters depend on sources in the department and on their knowledge of police procedure for their stories,” wrote educator Melvin Mencher in his college text “News Reporting and Writing,” now in its 12th edition. He later added that, “Sins of omission occur when the journalist fails to act in situations in which revelation is required. … More often, the omission is the result of laziness or ignorance.”

A group effort by Fred Fedler, John R. Bender, Lucinda Davenport and Michael R. Drager titled “Reporting for the Media” reiterates this point.

“If reporters lack some information, they should consult their sources again,” the authors wrote. “Reporters should never guess or make assumptions about the facts. … Conscientious news organizations check their stories’ accuracy.”

And former newspaper editor Tim Harrower devotes a portion of his own popular textbook, “Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism,” to covering accidents and disasters. Intrinsic to this kind of journalism: confirming before reporting.

“No matter how useful the Internet may be, it’s no substitute for reality ― for real discussions with real human beings,” Harrower wrote.

All of these texts have been around at least 10 years and are staples of journalism education. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at KMOV who studied journalism hasn’t read one, or read one like them.

But if they haven’t, the Boston Marathon bombings offered a contemporary lesson as twitterers latched onto police scanner reports of the manhunt for the bombing suspects, and ensuing urban lockdown, and quoted like gospel every snatch of detail and garbled bit of dialog.

“Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts,” wrote Curt Woodward in Cognoscenti, assessing the manhunt’s impact. “… The stuff being said over those airwaves is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.

“Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes,” he continued. “If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear coming over the scanner, without confirming it first.”

True, the proximity of Conners’ situation and KMOV’s storm reporting were too close to be anything but coincidence. Still, the dual social media failures imply a pattern of behavior, a misunderstanding about the importance, relevance and sensitivity of social media usage in news reporting.

So, I welcome staffers at KMOV to sit in on my classes next semester, particularly the one where we discuss how best to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and review how the station can start setting a better example. Or, I can lend them the textbooks; I have all three.

Or, maybe I’ll just have one of my students explain it to them.