Your Assignment for Today Is …

I’m speaking today at two seminars at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication: the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education and Media and the Institute for Midcareer Copy Editors. For a white guy who can’t spell, this is an intimidating day.

Thinking about what to say to these groups, I began to think about how important it is for each journalist who lives in a world of accuracy and accountability to personally venture in to the uncertain waters of online social networks and user-generated content. Among other things, it is a journalist’s job to give voice to the voiceless and to hold powerful people accountable. Wikipedia and Facebook are two places where the voiceless are stretching their vocal chords and where accountability is taking on new methods. If a journalist is to perform his or her job above a minimum standard of competence, it’s important to dive in to these worlds and understand how they work.

So your quiz for today is this:

* Do you know the technical forces at work that cause a racist screed to appear as one of the highest links on a Google search for “Martin Luther King”?

* Do you know how to use to find the owner of that racist site ?

* Could you explain how spread like wildfire the rumor of the death of Subway spokesman Jared Fogel? (And why it will be important for every political journalist to monitor the site on Nov. 3?)

* Could you use Wikipedia’s revision history to see who edited the Jared Fogel entry with the false rumor of his death? Could you explain why the page is (probably) accurate right now?

My point is this: people are using these tools to deceive your readers either through ignorance or malice. If professional journalists have any role in our society it is to see that truth wins the day. And that means it’s their job to know how social networks and user-generated content can be used for good AND evil.

So your assignment for the day is this: create a wikipedia entry for something or someone on your beat — something on which you are an expert source. Monitor the page to see how it fares with the crowd. Create a Facebook page and see if you can find a few people on your beat to “friend.”

Some may say that takes time away from real reporting. I say you won’t be able to do real reporting without these fundamental new media skills.

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