Brand Me a Journalist

Using Social Media to Create a Professional Niche

Posts Tagged ‘Breaking news

In breaking news, verification and humility remain essential for a credible personal brand

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of breaking news coverage on journalists’ brands. I first talked about it with my sons during the highs and lows of the Boston Marathon bombings coverage. The sheer volume of available information and demand for instant reporting made what historically was a difficult job fundamentally more complex, with amplified consequences. CNN’s John King’s doubly erroneous report that a “dark-skinned male” had been arrested by authorities received widespread criticism and led him to publicly address his “embarrassment“. Meanwhile, people lit up social media to praise NBC’s Pete Williams for his responsible and accurate coverage.

I also heard this issue discussed at the New York Times and the BBC College of Journalism Social Media Summit the following weekend, just hours after the manhunt ended. Although branding wasn’t specifically addressed, the discussion did include how hasty reporting and careless social media activity can affect journalists’ relationships with their audiences (which, I’d argue, is branding.)

As The New York Times’ David Carr shared, he’s learned sometimes it’s best to sit back and take a breath:

“The lack of friction is what makes it particularly dangerous. My response –  I care about my followers on Twitter, I want to look after them and keep them close – my response when big things happen is to lift my hands up, is to wait. Because I’ve gotten lit up by …  ‘Ooh, that’s juicy, that’s spicy… ‘ Just hit the retweet button and on it goes, and it all goes to shit.”

I imagine most of us have made that mistake; I know I’ve certainly retweeted a provocative development in a breaking story only to later wish I hadn’t. But as Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” The social contract between journalists and the public demands we do better. Because whether you’re a reporter on the scene or on your TweetDeck, your brand is only as strong as the level of credibility you have with your audience, and they have to be able to trust that you’re providing them with facts. Especially during breaking news. If you’re not dealing with facts, you’d better make that clear.

Last Friday, CBS news anchor Scott Pelley addressed his concerns about recent breaking news coverage in his powerful acceptance speech for the 2013 Fred Friendly First Amendment Award:

“Our house is on fire. These have been a bad few months for journalism. We’re getting the big stories wrong. Over and over again.”

Pelley wasn’t speaking from a holier-than-thou position; he was speaking as someone who’d recently failed to do his job as a journalist. He humbly acknowledged that he himself had made the inaccurate report that Adam Lanza’s mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and that it was her classroom Adam had attacked. He took full responsibility for his having gotten caught up in the race for the scoop and then warned his colleagues against relying on social media alone in this era of “instant reporting”:

“In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor. And that is the danger that we face today. We have entered a time when a writer’s first idea is his best idea. When the first thing a reporter hears is the first thing he reports … Twitter, Facebook and Reddit: that’s not journalism; that’s gossip. Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip.”

This should make us pause.

He’s talking about our profession, our tradition and our integrity.

At a time when our direct access to information, whether images, eyewitness accounts or citizens’ reactions, gives us immediate opportunities to get our work (and our names) seen, we increasingly are left to police ourselves. When we don’t, we do so at our own risk. Pelley is warning us that our impulses to gain visibility during a high-profile event better be tempered by the discipline to follow the bedrock principles of journalism, regardless of distribution method: Verification. The responsibility to do no harm. The fundamental distinction between the news gathering and news reporting processes. Reporting the facts.

Pelley didn’t stop there. He continued with an indictment of the need “to be first” as an irrelevant incentive, created by news organizations rather than the public:

“If you’re first, no one will ever remember. If you’re wrong, no one will ever forget. How does it serve the public to be first in this frantic efffort that we so often see – that we all succumb to – how does it serve the public if we’re first?

You know what first is all about? It’s vanity. It’s self-conceit. We do it to make ourselves feel better. No one’s sitting at home, watching five television monitors, going “Oh, they’re first!” That’s a game that we play in in our control rooms. Nobody does that. Maybe a touch of humility would serve us better, and serve the public better as well.”

Pelley’s reflections in the wake of his reporting error, as well as his actions, suggest he’s taken these words to heart. He received considerable praise for his measured reporting in the moments immediately after the Boston bombing and appears to have only strengthened his reputation.

We, too, can learn from his mistake by considering the consequences of being undisciplined in those “frantic efforts” and what that does to our brands. We must decide for ourselves, as Pelley stated, whether we have “the courage to be right when others would rather be first.”

Scott Pelley’s speech in its entirety (by Quinnipiac University via YouTube):

How my social media producer job helped refine my brand as a journalist

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As I mentioned in a recent post, my blogging about social media and personal branding played a major role in my getting hired as a social media producer at azcentral. My multimedia journalism graduate degree and familiarity with social media tools allowed for a smooth transition into Republic Media’s converged TV, print and online newsroom.

But after less than a year in the position, I had to quit my job a few weeks ago because the company my husband works for has decided to relocate us to the NY metro area. I’m now focusing on preparing for our move but will continue to write this blog, do freelance social media work and give guest lectures until we’re settled. I’m sad to leave Phoenix and my colleagues at azcentral. I have to admit, however, that I’m really excited about the career opportunities this move will offer in New York.

Although I worked at azcentral only briefly, it was enough time to recognize which parts of the job energized me and what I have to offer as part of a news organization. My main responsibilities involved posting stories on Facebook and Twitter, monitoring social media for trends and breaking news and engaging our audience. I definitely enjoyed that role, but after a while, I found my most satisfiying times in the newsroom were when I was using social media to help other journalists with their reporting. So I actively started approaching reporters and finding ways social media could assist them with their stories. Whether I was finding sources on Facebook who had been specifically affected by the massive Wallow Fire or using Storify to crowdsource reaction to a unusual local weather phenomenon, I loved how social media enhanced stories and did my part to show reporters how to take advantage of it. Those experiences eventually defined my contribution to our social media team and refined my brand.

Finding breaking news sources using social media

My day usually began by scanning my TweetDeck streams for local and national news that had broken overnight. (I loved being paid to know what was going on.) Our converged newsroom meant I was a few feet from the breaking news desk, print reporters, online team and television producers. If I saw a tweet from a Twitter user or another news organization that mentioned a developing story, I’d be on my feet to check if they knew about it. This responsibility suited my personality well; it’s my nature to be helpful and to share information with people. I monitored news tweets, hashtags and social media comments for relevant content and passed it on whenever it might be useful.

One highlight for me was when a Breaking News tweet I saw helped turn an international story into a local one for azcentral. I heard an early morning story on NPR about a Russian plane crash and later saw a @BreakingNews tweet announcing the plane was carrying an entire Russian hockey team.

I clicked the link to the NHL press release and found the coach was former Phoenix Coyotes player Brad McCrimmon, so I alerted the breaking news desk and told the home page editor about it. He searched our archives, found dozens of references to the coach and called the reporter who covers the Coyotes. Within 20 minutes, we had the enhanced wire story on our site. We posted our local story on Facebook and Twitter within the next hour.

This example elegantly highlights how social media’s role as part of a converged newsroom dynamic led to comprehensive news coverage of a local, and yet international, tragedy.

Crowdsourcing special projects 

Azcentral’s social media team encouraged reporters to tap into our social media followers (as well as their own) to crowdsource, and I let them know I was there to help. We used live chats to generate questions for interviews with experts, turned to Quora to find answers to niche questions, and when Osama bin Laden was captured and killed, I gathered local reaction using Storify. Most often, we helped reporters use Twitter and Facebook to find story ideas and sources.

Our crowdsourced 9/11 anniversary Arizona Republic front page was an unprecedented and unexpected social media achievement. Before the anniversary, azcentral and 12 News posted requests for six-word responses to the question “What does 9/11 mean to you?” on Facebook and Twitter and got over 600 responses. Their collective impact was so profound that the editors decided to wallpaper the front page of the Arizona Republic with the six-word statements against a silhouette of the Twin Towers and New York skyline. For the first time in the paper’s history, the front page was crowdsourced. The response was overwhelmingly positive within the local community and the newspaper industry.

I became a journalist because I wanted to tell people’s stories. Using social media tools to bring out otherwise unheard voices – even if they’re only making six-word statements – truly inspired me, and this part of my role as social media producer confirmed that I want crowdsourcing to be an even bigger part of my next job.

Training reporters and editors

I really enjoyed training colleagues to use social media for reporting. Despite the ubiquity of social media references in the news and within the newsroom, many very talented journalists had no interest in creating or actively using social media accounts. They’d been able to write compelling stories without them for years and saw no need to change their habits. Some had Twitter accounts but didn’t know how to maximize them, while others had been effectively using them to solicit ideas and sources and were eager to learn new tricks.

Each week I wrote a social media newsletter to share tips and give examples of five good tweets from the week. I also did one-on-one training of how to set up Twitter, Facebook’s subscribe feature, LinkedIn and TweetDeck. The feedback I got from reporters, whether it was a quick email saying the Five Good Tweets helped them become more comfortable with tweeting or a request for crowdsourcing advice, showed me the range of confidence and social media expertise throughout the staff. I genuinely enjoyed working with all skill levels and tailoring the training to their needs.

Providing help is a central part of who I am and my brand as a journalist, whether it’s to get information out, tell stories or teach. For now, I’ll be have to put that energy into helping my family move, but soon enough I’ll be using it to help myself get a job.