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Teaching journalism in a 'fake news' age

University Business, September 2018

When we think of “media,” images of the press spring to mind. Instances of “fake news” wreaked havoc throughout the 2016 presidential election, and subsequent accusations of the same levied against news organizations from top officials have dominated news narratives ever since.

My primary goal as a journalism professor is to encourage students to be “media literate.” But as a professional communicator, I understand media literacy doesn’t end with being able to decipher whether a news story is true or false.

Media literacy involves four steps: accessing information, analyzing what you have found, evaluating your motives and reactions, and creating media expressing your own reflections.  A recent incident in one of my classes reminded me of the importance of the last step, especially as it relates to professional communication.

My phone jangled a familiar tone shortly after midnight. I glanced at my nightstand blearily and saw it was a text posted by one of my students on GroupMe – an app designed to help groups communicate easily on their phones.

I used the app to form a group for my Mobile Journalism class at the start of the semester. Given our exclusive use of mobile devices for reporting, it seemed appropriate for students to have a way to bounce reporting ideas off each other and me while out on assignment.

The class’ use of the app exceeded my expectations. Without any specific delegation of responsibilities, students took turns taking pictures of important slides during lectures and posting them for everyone to see. They used it to seek clarification on assignments, and they answered each other publicly, saving me the headache of several individual emails answering the same questions. And, as intended, they used it to communicate while working to enhance the quality of their stories and gain valuable feedback.

Then, that text.

As a rule, journalists are not allowed to use friends as sources. Doing so compromises the reporter’s objectivity, creating an unavoidable bias that destroys credibility. Also, it’s extremely lazy.

My class is no different. If you use a friend as a source, you get a zero. Simple as that. I ask my students to turn in contact information for their sources so I can check in with them at random, and, unfortunately, a lot of them get caught. Especially when they post the wrong message in the wrong group chat…

The text was from a student in our class asking his friends to claim not to know him if I contacted them. He even added a “ha ha” to emphasize his cleverness in working around my source-checking system.

I flushed, feeling a combination of anger and utter embarrassment for the student. I had to make my next move carefully. I took about 15 minutes to calm myself and assess the situation. Then, I issued a concise, public response, tagging the student in my text: “Let’s have a chat about that last comment after class tomorrow.”

My response wasn’t meant to embarrass him or discuss specifics of his grade in a public form, which would be illegal. He compromised his own privacy by creating the message, and I had no choice but to acknowledge and deal with it on that same forum. He knew he was in trouble. His peers knew he was in trouble. And, more importantly, they knew I meant business.

Students create media online for many reasons: to connect, to consume, to understand, to share, and to determine their place in this world. As well-meaning as these reasons may be, students who are not media literate with their online communication will land themselves in trouble.

As professors, we bank on this. I use programs, like Turnitin, or even simple Google searches, to detect plagiarism. I use our university’s website and email system to determine whether a source is real or fabricated. Most effectively, I use students’ own public social media posts to gauge whether they are reporting ethically or using friends as sources. The ease with which I uncover problems with their work underscores the critical need for media literacy.

Some students view the thoroughness of my checking and my zero-tolerance policy as harsh, but I know I would be doing them a disservice if I let them continue to create media without thinking professionally.

When something like this happens, I don’t just stick the student with a zero and let him or her stew about it for the rest of the semester. I use these opportunities as “teachable moments” to underscore the importance of professional communication. It is too easy to be thoughtless when posting on social media, and while a careless comment here or there may seem harmless to the creator, it could mean everything to the person reviewing it.  

Students need to understand the footprint they are creating on social media. Without even meaning to, we cultivate an image of ourselves that may be a first or only impression for a potential employer, client, partner or random audience member.

To emphasize this point, I have my students participate in an activity. Using Facebook’s and Twitter’s own metrics data, I have students download all their posts into an Excel sheet. Then, using a free, online word cloud creator, such as Wordle, students paste all their data and create a graphic representing their most frequently used words, phrases or topics.

They don’t have to show me theirs, but I do share mine. My daughter’s and husband’s names pop up. “Journalism” and other words related to my job and university are enlarged and emboldened. Also, topics I frequently cover as a freelance reporter, including surfing and business, show up frequently. My footprint is largely appropriate for my career.

My students’ reactions to their own clouds range from embarrassed laughter to audible gasps. It’s a cool exercise, they say, but what does it mean?

“Everything,” I say.

A former student recently applied for a journalism job at a company whose editors I know well. I asked confidentially about the student’s application, and they were candid about their hesitance in hiring him. A quick review of the student’s social media posts revealed him to be highly political online. While that’s not necessarily a problem in many fields, it is a major sin in journalism where the goal is to report without bias that could affect your credibility.

After relaying this anecdote, I asked my students to put themselves in an employer’s shoes. If the boss reviewed your social media, what impression of you would he or she get? Imagine he or she has never met you – your word cloud is all that employer has to go on to get a sense of you as a person beyond your resume.

And I ask them: “Would you hire yourself?”

Many students believe it’s not fair. They call this tactic a violation of privacy that is unrelated to their work as a professional.

As someone who uses online resources to vet their work in my classes, I have well-crafted responses to each of these complaints. First, nobody said life is fair. Second, when you put something online, you forfeit your own privacy. Nobody is forcing you to reveal anything online that you don’t want to, so you only have yourself to blame for what is out there.

Third, when you work for an organization, you represent that organization. You work side-by-side with people who will interact with you all day, every day. What you are posting publicly reflects upon your co-workers and the company who hired you, and you have an obligation to uphold their standards of human decency. Just ask ABC executives, who would have been wise to review Roseanne Barr’s previous inflammatory tweets before spending millions on a reboot of her television show.

While it may seem a touch intrusive, it is our responsibility as teachers to encourage professional, media literate communication online. After all, what good is four years of journalism education if my students are going to demolish their careers in 280 characters?

Jennifer Brannock Cox is an associate professor of Communication Arts at Salisbury University