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.)

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.)

Register now for Excellence in Journalism

EIJ 2013 logoYour time is running out.

In four days, early registration ends for Excellence in Journalism 2013, the mother of all journalism conferences.

This year’s gathering is a co-production of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists — the first time all three groups have teamed up this way.

Just signing up before Thursday, July 25, warrants half-price registration at the door, which is at the Anaheim Marriott, a short transit ride from Disneyland and the Disney California Adventure. To sweeten the deal, Disney Parks is offering attendees big discounts on both attractions.

But if you think Mickey Mouse is simply goofy, then consider this: EIJ 2013 features special guests such as Kai Ryssdal of American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” Chris Wallace of Fox News, and Belva Davis, a legend in San Francisco media and one of the nation’s first African American TV news anchors. There will be special sessions on audio storytelling, personal branding, editing, leadership and media entrepreneurship. There will be book signings, job-hunting advice, and recognition of student journalism achievement.

If nothing else, I’ll be there. And I invite you to join me for coffee or lunch in discussing the future of journalism and how you can play a big role in it.

The conference will be Aug. 24-26, and the Anaheim Marriott still has rooms available. Sign up now to take advantage of the discounts, and I’ll see you there.

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.

4 tips on freelancing for newspapers

Freelance Writing TipsThanks to the economy, the market for freelance writers and editors has ballooned.

That’s because America’s slow crawl back toward fiscal stability gives daily and weekly print publications hope for revitalization via digital alter egos that prefer original content to aggregation — the hand-me-down stories culled from outside sources. These publications are limited, however, because when media corporations’ stock prices fell, staffs were cut.

The result: too many news operations with too few people to gather news. One estimate puts newspaper journalism’s total staff losses in the United States since 2007 above 40,000.

Enter the freelancer, perhaps now more valuable than ever to news organizations.

Freelancers operate on a per-story or per-project basis; they possess distinct talents and knowledge a news operation may lack; and, best of all — in the news operation’s mind but not necessarily the freelancer’s — their contracts need not include health benefits and retirement plans, the two biggest costs attached to full-time staff apart from salary.

So, while looking around for new clients, freelancers might consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, freelancers should be aware of a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors gauge a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, so being amenable helps land more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small — Typical compensation ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces only after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Of course, the assignments may not be frequent enough to yield a steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that abhor lateness. If an editor says a story has to be completed and in hand by a certain time, freelancers should submit it well before that time, if possible. Otherwise, freelancers should be upfront with editors, ready to explain difficulties and ask for guidance; editors understand that plans can change and circumstances can be nettlesome. But missing a deadline — just one, even — without advance warning or rational cause undermines a freelancer’s credibility.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local angle, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Freelancers first must read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; knowing these allows for intelligent conversations with assigning editors.

(Writer’s note: The post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2010 for The Independent Journalist, the freelancing blog of the Society of Professional Journalists, and for my former blog on Posterous.)

A partir del Cinco de Mayo

On the fifth comes my first.

Starting today, the day famously known as Cinco de Mayo, all the logic and lunacy symbolic of my first blog resumes here ─ where it should have been all along.

Posterous logoFour years ago, I staked my claim to this domain and anchored it to this publishing platform, unsure what to do with either one. The prevailing logic demanded my domain be an extension of my personality and house bits and pieces of it.

Instead, I resisted, because prevailing logic affords no permanence, only convenience. In time, that kind of logic changes, and logic, by definition, defies convention.

Then, three years ago, I began blogging. Well past the portmanteau’s freshness date, I know, but began in earnest no less. The first few posts were sporadic; later entries were better and bolder. I was on track toward regular blogging when three things occurred:

1) I became regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, a job possessing demands that, to my surprise, wilted my routine.

2) My mother suffered a heart attack, then a stroke. Since then, she has slipped out of cogence and into hospice care. My trips to see her changed from random to routine.

3) My chosen blogging platform, Posterous, shut down.

The third factor proved more distracting than I imagined. Posterous had character and wide appeal. It was free to use and mindful of mobile users, becoming one of the first blogging platforms to make mobile posting seamless. High-profile bloggers made it their chosen platform, too. I felt, as one always does early in a relationship, that Posterous had staying power.

Then Twitter bought it. Then Twitter plundered it for talent. Then Twitter, on April 30, shut it down.

When the platform folded, my nascent network of regular readers fractured. True though, they followed me over from social networking, which takes more time out of my day than acceptable. Still, if my thinking ever deepened, those followers now lacked a venue to witness the plunge.

So, today, I dust off this domain to make it into what it should have been from the start. That it happens on May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, is coincidence, if maybe a happy one.

Of course, I could retrench at another free blogging site (and I have, to a degree). But I’m paying for this one, it sat dormant way too long, and even if this publishing platform changes, the ideas expressed here ought to remain here.

I hope.