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.)

The party is over for Twitter

Twitter logoIf someone asks you to explain Twitter, say this: Twitter is a cocktail party.

Or it was until Friday.

At these parties, people mingle and move from one conversation to another, from one group to another. Discussions are mixed with fact, fallacy, innuendo and rumor, but they engage us, entice us. We soon perceive the party to be a community bound by the threads of its distinct blend of interactions.

Now, imagine someone bursts into the party and into your conversation while blurting comments unrelated to the discussion.

That sort of rude, boorish behavior is considered an apt description of Twitter’s new policy to inject tweets into users’ feeds while simultaneously abandoning chronological display of tweets, arguably one of the platform’s best and most logical qualities. Twitter made the change formal in a recent blog announcement but has been toying with the platform’s dynamics all summer.

Call it the triumph of algorithms over logic.

“Choosing who to follow is a great first step — in many cases, the best tweets come from people you already know, or know of,” Twitter product team member Trevor O’Brien wrote in the blog. “But there are times you might miss out on tweets we think you’d enjoy.” (Emphasis added.)

Twitter measures interactions much as Facebook does and depends on users’ broad interactions to maintain viability. The more followers a user has, the greater the user’s audience engagement.

But Twitterers need time and constant tweeting to develop a large following. Twitter has figured that by altering the dynamic it can save users time and effort, which likely increases overall audience engagement. This in turn would make the platform look more appealing to investors.

Twitter obviously sees a trend that must be followed to maintain the platform’s viability. That or maybe Twitter had tired of seeing us talk to the same people over and over.

By pushing people uninvited into conversations, Twitter risks alienating its constituency, reminding users of the times they engaged in conversations and somebody who was inebriated or arrogant or uninformed, or singularly cursed with all three qualities, butted in.

Pleas abound urging Twitter to not be that kind of platform.

Social media is, above all else, a conversation. The tools can be fancy and fun, but subtract those and what remains is mere dialog — the communication of thoughts, hopes and experiences to create a bond, however briefly, between individuals.

In creating that bond, we enter into an informal social contract, roughly defined as an agreement between participants to keep the conversation relevant and pertinent to one another’s interests. When other people interrupt, the tolerant among us weigh for an instant whether the intrusion adds value. The intolerant among us give more weight to the intrusion than its rationale.

Occasionally, interruptions are acceptable. But when the interruptions are constant they become annoying and we resist them, ignoring any potential value added to the conversation.

Twitter’s greatest strength was its ability to maintain order and logic to digital discussions. Lacking that strength, Twitter becomes a party nobody wants to attend.

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.