The value of social media education in journalism

With 5 minutes remaining in my News Editing and Design class today, a student asked a thought-provoking question.  To paraphrase, she basically asked if I believed teaching social media in journalism was more valuable than teaching the basics of headline writing, page layout and design.  She prefaced her remark on the assumption that young persons who have grown up around this technology (i.e. digital natives) already know how to use these tools, perhaps better than adults (digital immigrants). That’s a doozy of a question.  Realizing the weight of the question, the other students pleaded that I answer that question on Wednesday, when the class meets again.

I decided to post my thoughts here.  First, I tweeted my immediate gut reaction to the question: “yes, but it’s more complicated than that.”

As to the first assumption, let me state that while young people have a familiarity with how to use social media and digital tools in their personal lives, I’ve found they often lack the conceptual knowledge of how to use these tools for professional means and fail to see the contextual bigger picture of what our changing digital culture means (I base this, in part, from my experience teaching a digital media course to gifted teenagers the past two summers).  If digital natives are indeed ahead of the news industry on how they process new media and emerging technologies, as this excellent Nieman Reports article suggests, then the need for journalism educators to address the value of social media in journalism becomes even more important.

To address the student’s larger question about the relevance, role and importance of teaching social media in journalism, let me first echo University of British Columbia journalism professor Alfred Hermina’s sentiment that journalism educators must not lose sight of the journalism in teaching the technical.

For me, the question is not an either/or proposition.  Teaching social media in journalism is not in and of itself inherently more valuable than teaching traditional editing and design skills.  Nevertheless, when the publisher of arguably the most esteemed newspaper in America declares that his publication will go out of print in the future it makes little sense to place heavy technical training emphasis on traditional print-centric skills in jobs that will vanish along with the ink-on-paper products.

To my knowledge, few students in the Editing and Design course are clamoring for jobs as copy editors or page designers.

In my opinion, journalism education should be contextual and conceptual (how technological changes in digital media are changing the very tenets of journalism and roles of journalists and more importantly what does this mean), even in an introductory skills course.

As such, my job is not to teach you a particular technology or platform per se, whether that is a “print-centric” tool such as InDesign or a social media one such as Twitter.  My job is to teach concepts that transcend those technologies.  Whether in print or on the Web, there are characteristics to good design that hold true, regardless of the platform.  Basic skills such as editing (text, audio, video, still photography), design (web, print) and writing do not change.  The “how-to’s,” where’s and why’s may change, but the fundamental concepts remain the same.

Thus, the challenge is not to replace the teaching of one medium with the teaching of another.  When I teach students Twitter and require that they tweet Web friendly headlines, I’m not just teaching the latest social media platform that could be gone from the digital landscape in a few years.  What I’m really teaching are skills such as engagement, crowdsourcing, personalization, collaboration, connectivity, curation, branding, and experimentation, that have become essential to the job of being a journalist today and in the future.   These are concepts, not technologies.  But Ann Handley’s post provides an excellent example of how traditional journalism mantras of yesteryear influence the use of today’s social media technologies.  In short, Handley’s post is a reminder of the importance of following Alfred Hermida’s advice to not lose sight of the journalism in teaching the technology.

The basics still matter.  That’s a given.  When you boil it down, the basic question my student wants to know is this.  In journalism, does Social Media matter more?

Given that this Mashable series goes as far as to say that all media as we know it today will become social, I think you could argue that yes indeed it does.

The real issue is not whether one matters more than another.  The real question is: does social media matter in journalism?


But in true social media fashion, that is not entirely for me to decide.  I pose these questions to my readers and followers.  Let the discussion and debates begin.


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3 Responses to “The value of social media education in journalism”

  1. Learning from Yalom: therapies for teaching (journalism) :: Says:

    […] etc particularly in journalism, it’s quite easy to forget about building a relationship with students: getting to know them, knowing their interests, obstacles and goals. My spin on Mindy […]

  2. asouthby Says:

    I am a Communication and Media undergraduate at Bournemouth University, and I’ve been looking into the growing influence of social media on professional journalistic practices. I was wondering if you had any opinions on whether reliance on social media can be considered to trivialise reporting, in the sense of being driven by SEO-based headlines, increasingly emotive or colloquial (and thus attention-grabbing) tweets and statuses, and the emphasis of the audience’s active role in providing and processing information. Or would you consider this approach a form of journalistic snobbery?
    Many thanks for any help.

    • graybs Says:

      Amy, Thanks for your comments. In short, no. I do not think use of social media in and of itself inherently trivializes reporting. Like with every aspect of journalism, there are organizations and reporters who do things exceptionally well and organizations and reporters who could improve their use and applicability of social media. Emotive and attention-grabbing headlines are nothing new. Some publications are known for sensationalism and tabloid-style reporting. So in that sense the potential downsides you mention are not unique or specific to forms of social media. You can have the same result in the old-fashioned print form just as you can on say, Twitter, or Facebook. Now, the best news organizations recognize that Twitter provides a different audience than the mainstream newspaper and writes accordingly to them. My local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example writes in a looser style on Twitter and often incorporates humor and popular culture references (the @ajc account is a Shorty Awards finalist). For breaking news, the audience can be extremely valuable for providing information. Of course, the newspaper’s job is to vet that information and make sure that accurate information is conveyed. Studies have shown that the community of users often correct false and inaccurate reports in due time (eventually the accurate information is disseminated). Another recent study also found that mainstream media (news) outlets are primarily responsible for a large amount of information that trends on Twitter (setting the agenda). For some “best of” examples of how to use social media effectively and adhering to a high level of journalistic principles, standards and excellence I would encourage you to look at CNN’s Ben Wedeman or the New York Times’ Nick Kristof’s use of Twitter and Facebook in covering the Egyptian revolution. Hope this information is somewhat helpful or useful to you.

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