Please, please, PLEASE, think before you tweet

Think before you tweet

context (n.) — the portions of written or spoken statements that influence meaning or effect.

Philadelphia TV reporter and former anchor Joyce Evans may finally appreciate the meaning of this word, thanks to social media.

Kansas University journalism professor David Guth might as well, for the same reason.

Both have entered a pantheon of infamy wrought by ill-advised actions on Twitter, considered the fastest vehicle for embarrassment apart from reality TV. They are poster children for the importance of cramming context into the small space Twitter allows, no matter how tight the fit.

The question now is whether anyone who witnessed what they went through garners a shred of wisdom from the circumstances.

Evans ran headlong into a wave of unwanted attention this week after merging pop culture and breaking news into one cumbersome, 89-character blurt on Twitter for her employer, Fox affiliate WTXF-TV.

Evans' Tweet

Evans’ intent was clear; she wanted to surf the wave of attention spawned by broad public interest in “Breaking Bad,” the black-comedy crime drama on AMC that bowed out Sept. 29 after 62 episodes and a history of far-reaching social engagement.

But in channeling “Bad” the way she did, Evans trampled the distinction between reality and fantasy, and suggested she was deaf to the tone of each. Audiences tried to enlighten her.

Evans Criticism

An apology for her overstatement seemed in order. Instead, Evans compounded the problem by pushing off responsibility onto her Twitter followers.

Evans' Response

The subsequent fusillade stretched well beyond WTXF’s viewing area, silenced Evans’ usually busy Twitter feed as well as her Facebook page, and cost her the weekend anchor job she held since 1996.

Guth’s own Twitter reality check in mid-September, on the other hand, was purposeful and potentially more costly. The associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Communications exploded against conservative commentary on the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16. Thirteen people died, including the assailant.

In response to perceived invective on Twitter by alleged supporters of the National Rifle Association, Guth posted:

Guth's Tweet

The reaction was predictable. Even Republican state lawmakers vowed retaliation, and the president of the Kansas State Rifle Association promised that her NRA chapter would campaign to have Guth fired.

KU at first distanced itself from Guth’s comments, then from Guth. The university hustled him off on a research sabbatical that was not scheduled to start until next year. His Twitter feed also came down.

Guth remains unapologetic. He said on TV after the tweet that he was “deliberately provocative,” and in an email responding to my request for comment, he wrote, “It’s unfortunate that my comments have been deliberately distorted. I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light.”

He said he expects to be back at KU at the conclusion of his sabbatical but declines to say anything more about what happened. The university is similarly silent.

As for what the rest of us expect, especially from professional journalists and educators, it’s something more than selfishness, something more than a middle finger pointed at our sensibilities.

When Evans hyper-extended her comparison, she made what many of us might consider an honest mistake. The lure of social media is in part due to its speed and the excitement that speed generates. In turn, we react without full awareness of what we’re saying and remain ignorant until the excitement subsides.

A 2009 study by the University of Southern California seems to confirm this, explaining that social media moves too fast for our “moral compass” to catch up with what we’re thinking.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher for the study, told CNN. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

Sree Sreenivasan agrees. He’s a popular tech evangelist and one of the foremost advocates for sensible use of social media. At the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Fort Lauderdale last year, he advised journalists against posting before thinking.

The owner of more than 50,000 Twitter followers, Sreenivasan waits three to six minutes between tapping a tweet and posting it because he knows that first words usually are not the best words, in any medium.

“Anything you share can and will be used against you,” he said.

This is sound and potentially career-saving advice for people such as Joyce Evans and David Guth who put hubris before introspection. In both instances, the Twitterers omitted context, either by accident or by design, then denied that their choice of words muddled their messages.

You are the best protector against your own embarrassment and ridicule. We need to remember that in this social-media inflected age, often our only guide to responsible behavior is staring back at us in the mirror.

Maybe Evans would still be a TV anchor and Guth still teaching if not for their unartful language. Unfortunately for all of us, their fame is based on what they said, not what they meant.

(Update: Guth will be allowed to teach again at Kansas next fall, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.)

Zhopped offers free online photo editing, for fun only

ZhoppedDespite the abundant tools available for digital photo editing, none include the skills to use them.

Enter Zhopped.com, a Las Vegas-based website that offers to edit photos by request, whether that request is a simple crop or complex art. All the work is performed by a community of editors and artists who are off-site and use their own tools and time for free.

In time, Zhopped hopes to become a marketplace where the community’s members bid for services.

“Zhopped was created to be an easy, fun and visual way for people looking for photo or image editing help,” the site blog says. “It’s also for creative individuals of talents to show off their skills by helping others.”

Subscribers simply post a photo, write an open request for changes to the photo, and an editor steps in to do them. Comment fields under each photo let users issue instructions and criticism. Users and editors are allowed to register with alter egos.

The range of requests to date is broad. In one, for example, a subscriber requests a tighter crop on a house photo. But in several, the editors are asked to switch out backgrounds to put photo subjects in new locations.

So, what prevents photos like that from turning up in professional publications? Zhopped doesn’t say. The site’s usage policy stipulates opposition to the use of copyrighted work, as well as pornography, and its terms of service prohibits making something commercial out of something personal.

Zhopped will cancel any account found in violation of these rules. Beyond that though, the site accepts no responsibility for artwork once it leaves Zhopped’s platform.

Zhopped went public May 1, but stumbled recently due to a hacking issue.

“We lost about five weeks’ worth of data through a hacking exploit that compromised the server host, which also corrupted some of our backup data,” another blog post explains. “Sadly, some users may need to recreate their usernames.”

A request for comment from Zhopped’s operators has not been answered.

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.

Larry ignored me, and look what happened

Poor Larry. If only he had taken me up on my offer.

Larry Conners, courtesy of  the Post-DispatchThe Larry in question is Larry Conners, the once-ubiquitous, now erstwhile KMOV-TV news anchor. My offer was an invitation that he join the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I can’t help but think that if he had accepted the invitation, maybe, just maybe, Conners wouldn’t be in such a fix today.

Instead, he’s learning a lesson about the vagaries of celebrity and social media, and those lessons can to be harsh.

Al Roker knows this. So does Anthony Weiner, Ashton Kutcher, Kenneth Cole, and the former Chad Ochocinco: Posting or tweeting with indifference, ignorance or insensitivity can tarnish reputations, perhaps beyond polish.

The Web bristles with examples of questionable social networking behavior, to the extent that a top tip for job hunters is sweeping out offensive material from their networking sites before sending out résumés.

Yet the harsh lessons persist, with no learning evident or behaviors changed. Conners, 66, a 37-year veteran of St. Louis television, sets the latest example.

Conners took a face plant on Facebook last week when he hinted at personal intimidation from the Internal Revenue Service resulting from his televised interview of President Barack Obama in April 2012. During the interview, he issued criticism allegedly passed along from KMOV viewers about the president racking up frequent flyer vacation miles at taxpayer expense.

Conners spoke out only now because he says he was inspired by a recent IRS admission that the agency allowed tougher-than-usual scrutiny of records coming from conservative interest groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Facebook, Conners, while not revealing his politics, suggested the interview with Obama alone might have brought down scrutiny on himself. He didn’t mention though that his own tax issues predate the Obama interview.

On air a day later, Conners backtracked a bit from his insinuations, but that clarification apparently wasn’t enough. His employer first suspended him, then cut him loose, saying the Facebook post undercut his journalistic credibility and that of the station.

Since then, Conners has defended his intentions on a rival station. His next defense may come in court; Conners has hired an attorney.

I shake my head in dismay.

Three years ago, I was the newly minted president of SPJ’s St. Louis chapter, and as a courtesy to all major media members in the area sent out invitations to either join or rejoin the 114-year-old national society, which among other ideals espouses a Code of Ethics considered to be the standard for behavior among journalists.

The society not only posts this Code online, it has printed copies that the St. Louis chapter offers at most of its monthly meetings. High up in the Code’s wording, it exhorts journalists to “exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

Given Conners’ lengthy tenure in television news, one might think he wouldn’t need a reminder. But that’s why SPJ posts the Code and prints the cards; we all need reminding.

Today, journalists toe a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity. The former underpins their credibility; the latter seeps through because media companies urge their talent to blog, post and tweet for the sake of higher readership and ratings.

Undeniably, social media has become a tool for news gathering, but it’s also a window into a person’s thinking.

And there’s another problem. Social media lets users believe they’re staring at a screen instead of a potential audience numbering in the millions. The impersonal nature of digital networking masks a deeper truth: We’re actually staring at each other, face to face.

That’s why Conners might be forgiven for his statements against the IRS, and his transgression dismissed, on a claim of social media ignorance. But he went a step further by concluding his Facebook accusation with the line, “Can I prove it? At this time, no.”

Those perhaps were the worst words he could have written. Proof forms the foundation of journalistic credibility and integrity. Absent proof, Conners’ words amounted to a rant. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is clear on this.

So, I wish Larry had taken me up on my offer to join SPJ awhile back. Then he might have had the Code on a card somewhere within view while he was Facebooking.

I’ll probably send him one anyway. He can still learn something from it.