Trump’s tweets hurt his support in the Heartland

trump-tweets

Image courtesy of Vocativ.

My aunt’s glittering Christmas tree remained up and surrounded by presents well past New Year’s. Outdoors, Trump-Pence campaign signs posted around her rolling rural Missouri community did, too – for much the same reason.

“It’s too cold to do anything,” one of my cousins said. “Door froze shut on the car yesterday.”

Across America’s Heartland, one southward bending jet steam after another pulled down bitter cold from Canada since the week after Thanksgiving. Feels-like temperatures had minus signs in front of them, turning county and backroads into strips of ice and freezing my family’s travel plans to my aunt’s house.

Before that, stretching to Election Day, dripping skies turned the rich, dark soil to mud around this mid-Missouri farming landscape, literally and figuratively freezing it in place since Nov. 8.

But when the thaw comes, I wonder if the Trump signs are pulled down before the Christmas decorations.

The hint that they might came during a TV news break between playoff football games. My aunt, whose prayers for clear roads and a big family Christmas were answered, was picking up bits of wrapping paper left after a 90-minute cacophony of gift-giving and food consumption in her broad living room. Recovery victims slouched in every chair and nook between them. About half the sets of eyes aimed at the TV were half open.

Then the news announcer reminded viewers of Donald Trump’s pointed and petty Twitter exchange with Arnold Schwarzenegger two days earlier. A low grunt oozed out on either side of me from a couple of people I knew to be Trump supporters.

“God, I wish he would just shut the hell up,” one of them muttered at the screen.

My ears tingled. The rest of the audience remained quiet. The news announcer was in mid-sentence when some smaller members of our brood returned from playing upstairs. So, later, as the mutterer and I were in the corner of the kitchen nudging second helpings of pecan pie onto fresh paper plates, I leaned in to whisper an inquiry.

“So, eh, not happy with Trump?” I ventured delicately.

This violated protocol on this side of my family, which keeps its ties to one another closer than to politics. In a house brimming with contrasting and conflicting viewpoints on virtually every topic, conversations hew eagerly to health and happiness, weekday labor and weekend relaxation, the severe weather and the cheerful coos from the newest great-grandchild experiencing her first Christmas. Political discussions remain stored with the lawn chairs awaiting the warm-weather days when they can drift harmlessly on sultry breezes.

The mutterer, another of my cousins, applied two dollops of whipped cream to his slice of pie and also whispered.

“Yeah, well, yeah. It’s just … you know …”

He paused.

“I mean, he keeps saying all this stuff that doesn’t really matter and makes him look silly.”

“Hmm.”

“Stuff that makes it look like he’s not paying attention or doesn’t want to.”

“You mean, on Twitter? That Schwarzenegger thing?”

“Yeah. That stuff doesn’t matter to anybody.”

It is safe to say my relatives around here know what does. They work on farms and at schools, in construction and manufacturing. They have watched generations of prosperity devolve into desperation. They see jobs continue to disappear and livelihoods diminish, and they know the reasons are multiple, varied, and complex. When my aunt hosts Christmas, they know it is not just a celebration of togetherness, but also her valiant effort to ward off the same creeping desperation, if only for a few hours.

When my family went to cast their ballots Nov. 8, they did it for the sake of change – the sake of their community – not for a celebrity.

“So many people I know are out there looking for work. Still looking,” my cousin said. “(Trump) says he’s bringing back jobs. Man, I am hoping.”

“But it won’t happen right away,” I said. “It’ll take time. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” said my cousin, extending the syllable and staring down at the whipped cream. “Yeah, it will. And I’d like to hear him say what he’s got in mind to do it. But … this.” He glanced back at the television, which was showing the kickoff for the second game. “This is what he talks about.”

“You think maybe the news should ignore it?”

My cousin sighed. “Nah, nah, that’s not it. They’re going to say things. Everyone will believe what they believe. I think it’s him being on Twitter all the time complaining about things that don’t matter to anyone.”

He moved to leave. I touched his elbow to stop him. “So, you still going to give him a chance?”

He shrugged. “Got no choice. He’s ours now.”

“But if you thought he might keep tweeting like this, would you have supported him?”

Another shrug. “Man, I don’t know. Maybe. I really didn’t like that Hillary Clinton – didn’t like her one bit. But all this tweeting … man … makes me wonder why I voted for anyone at all …”

An arm attached to one of the grandchildren, then the rest of the grandchild, squeezed between us for the pie. My cousin and I ended the discussion and worked through the growing kitchen crowd back to our places in the living room. We settled back into the joy of the occasion. (Trump used Twitter again two days later to slam another star, Meryl Streep, who criticized him at the Golden Globe Awards.)

Later, as everyone said their farewells and packed to leave, I commiserated.

“My best to your friends,” I told my cousin. “I really do hope for their sake that Trump delivers.”

“Thanks, man,” he said and patted my shoulder. “But I think this is all we’re going to get from him.”

We’ve had presidents like Trump – twice

 

angry-trump

Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.

At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.

Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.

One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.

We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.

Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.

As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.

Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.

“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.

This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.

In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.

We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”

What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.

History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.

The three R’s of Twitter literacy

 

twitter-iconLook around. It’s easy to see. From home to school, from work to play, we’re witnessing a disturbing change in America, 140 characters at a time.

That change, heralded by microblogs and trumpeted by our president, demands immediate satisfaction with digital communications, such that we’re compelled to tell networks of virtual “friends” what we’re doing minute by minute and expect the same in return.

Evidence of this abounds as people meander down busy sidewalks with heads bent and eyes focused on their smartphones. Even in groups, we prefer meeting each other through our digital devices instead of face to face.

Twitter alone has attracted an audience of well over 300 million people tapping out an estimated 6,000 tweets per second. Americans are tops at tweeting, constituting 30 percent of all Twitter users.

We could write off this behavior as endemic to a social species requiring engagement to survive and thrive. Instead, such time-consuming, attention-diverting devotion to information that is at once pertinent and pedantic softens society, inserts more space between ourselves and the world, and achieves the opposite of what we had hoped to accomplish through our amazing digital devices.

What would it take to disrupt this spreading inattentiveness before we’re reduced to letting technology do all the talking for us? Analysts say a refined Twitter temperament that fosters mature social networking is essential to sounding literate online, and the core curricula of that literacy can be boiled down to three R’s:

Restraint — We perceive our portals to the internet to be one-way mirrors when in fact there are hundreds of thousands of eyes peering back at us. Couple that with social media enticing users to give up details about themselves in the name of “brand awareness,” and little about us will remain private. This is why so many Twitter users tweet every thought they have every minute they have them. They wax lengthy on food and fashion choices, spill secrets and tell lies, and they do these things either unaware of or indifferent to their network’s varied interests.

The result: Instead of growing their networks, they lose followers, and their networks shrink.

The best tweeters are not so random or careless. Sree Sreenivasan, New York’s chief digital officer, says he will wait a full six minutes between tweets to ponder what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and the possible reception from his followers. The alternative is a message that misses the mark and bruises his brand.

“I delete much more than I tweet,” he told the Society of Professional Journalists.

Research — Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”

If only the Twitterverse were as insightful.

Instead, Twitter’s mix of immediacy and intimacy often blunts good sense. The tweets can circulate widely outside through hashtags and retweets, which entices users to announce rather than report on the notion that an authoritative-sounding tweet can grow their networks.

Proven knowledge — the kind based on unimpeachable evidence — gives each tweet more chirp because it demonstrates the sender’s diligence in pursuit of authenticity. Like quotes and facts in a newspaper article, embedded links pointing to legitimate, apolitical sources shore up the authority of tweets and improve the credibility of whoever sends them.

“It’s not just about knowing how,” says noted social critic and modern media analyst Howard Rheingold. “It’s about knowing how and knowing who knows who knows what. … Know-how is where the difference lies.”

Reciprocity — Social media’s best quality appears in its name. We’re drawn to tools such as Twitter because they’re both personal and public; some part of us and our followers threads its way through every exchange, intended or not. Moreover, Twitter’s easy accessibility encourages users to reach beyond their circles of close friends to network with anyone harboring vast reserves of knowledge and experience.

But to get real value from Twitter, that value must be exchanged.

“I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people you follow,” Rheingold says. “… If you don’t put out, you don’t get back.”

Of course, one of the greatest benefits of being part of a social network is staying up to date on current events and updates and providing social followers with information that is relevant and popular. Better still is sharing unique information – original, authentic content no one else has generated. Twitter users who do that are certain to attract a flock of loyal followers.

(Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared on the Gateway Media Literacy Partners website.)

6 tips for using Twitter like a professional

Twitter logoTwitter has been with us for almost a decade, yet we remain amazed at the things people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective. Even public relations people, journalists and other professional communicators are guilty of excess and irresponsibility in their tweets.

Of course, plenty of twitterers in these fields set excellent examples. People such as Kenna Griffin, Callie Schweitzer and Sree Sreenivasan employ the platform in ways the rest of us should observe closely.

But what remains out of billions of tweets often resembles boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, any attempt to garner attention through public channels was frowned upon and seen as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, persistent and effusive social media use is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”

This deep knee bend to branding is ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning overstated significance to digital socialization — a significance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting and corporate communications via social media will suffer the same dearth of quality.

Media consumers derive a certain assurance from a professional communicator’s detachment. That assurance peters out when, say, news providers shout above the loud partisan polemic drowning out rational thought — a polemic they help create.

The solution, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to exert greater care in separating personal from professional Twitter content. Despite claims that a personal touch demystifies media and makes information more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. When journalists and corporate communicators get too personal, they damage their own credibility and the credibility of their employers and put their professions at risk of being marginalized.

So, preserve your credibility and avoid marginalization in the workplace by following these six tips for better Twitter usage:

Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, then do it. At the same time, refrain from using the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.

Exercise care with criticism — Do you love Danielle Steel’s latest novel? Do you hate the plot twist in “Game of Thrones”? Fine, but avoid posting those opinions unless they are relevant to the job. Opinions water down the objectivity that professional communicators need for peak performance.

Avoid discussing company matters — If discord exists between management and staff in the workplace, or personnel matters prove irksome, then venting discontent via veiled insults on social media will undermine others’ faith in you and could prove actionable in a court of law. Similarly, honesty and accountability regarding one’s own errors denote respectability.

Rein in the urge to be defensive — By their nature, news media and corporate communicators invite criticism. Some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all, but avoid dragging readers and viewers too far along with you. That beach picture showing Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest a laxity about work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a problem rooted in esthetics: Food never looks as good in social media as it does sitting on the plate in front of us.

Avoid making sales pitches — Ensure personal and business brand integrity by not distributing or re-tweeting sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people at work who are supposed to market those products.

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.

Mizzou researchers create a tool that makes Twitter more powerful

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins (left) and doctoral student Ian Graves developed software that measures the context of words used in Twitter. (Photo courtesy of the MU News Bureau)

Twitter already is a powerful news aggregator and microblogging platform. Now, two University of Missouri researchers think they know how to improve it.

Their thinking stems from new software the pair developed that they say considers the context of tweets, not just the quantity. At present, a topic is popular or “trending” on Twitter if there are a high number of related keywords and hashtags that are associated with it.

But the software, developed by Mizzou assistant professor Sean Goggins and doctoral student Ian Graves, can be programmed to pick out words and analyze their placement within tweets.

Goggins and Graves said they tested their concept on a flurry of tweets from the Super Bowl and World Series and assigned tags to words they predicted would be common in the two broad conversations. The software scrutinized where the words were located in each tweet, thus giving the researchers notions on the words’ contextual importance and allowing them to see how conversations evolved.

“When analyzing tweets that are connected to an action or an event, looking for specific words at the beginning of the tweets gives us a better indication of what is occurring, rather than only looking at hashtags,” Goggins said in a Mizzou news release.

In tracking word placement, the researchers were able to determine the nuance attached to each Twitter discussion. They could discern the action on the ball field between pitches and on the gridiron between plays.

“The program uses a computational approach to seek out not only a spike in hashtags or words, but also what’s really happening on a micro-level,” Graves said. “By looking for low-volume, localized tweets, we gleaned intelligence that stood apart from the clutter and noise” associated with each event.

Goggins and Graves believe their software will help make Twitter more effective for monitoring community safety and tracking disaster relief, and improve understanding of cause and effect in major events such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the protests in Ferguson.

Although less than 5 percent of Twitter traffic is actual news, much of the dialog that drives retweets and hashtags relates to newsworthy events.

Goggins teaches in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies at Mizzou. Graves is a student in the Computer Science and IT Department at Mizzou’s College of Engineering. Nora McDonald, a graduate student at Drexel University, contributed to the study, which appears in the journal New Media and Society and was funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation.

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.)

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.