Social Media and News Judgment in the Classroom

When I walk into the classroom to teach my introductory news writing students at UNC, I remind myself that I’m giving a map to people who have always driven sports cars, but never out of their neighborhood.

Some of the students are younger than Mosaic, and throughout their lives, their access to information technology has outpaced their understanding of it.

The answer to the question of “What is news?” for many of them is “Whatever my friends share on Facebook.” And that means popularity — and for many of them it’s popularity among a narrow subset of people who look, act and see the world similarly — trumps all the traditional news values of impact, proximity, prominence, timeliness, emotional appeal, oddity and conflict.

But rather than try to replace one with the other, I’m trying a technique that I hope will use their familiarity with social media to get them to think more about their audience. Try the following and let me know how it works for you, too.

1. Have the students organize their Facebook friends into various lists, using traditional news values. So, for example, students might organize their friends by geography, share experiences, relationship status, number of friends they have, frequency of posting, or a combination of those. Instructions for Creating a Facebook List

2. Throughout the semester, your students are already required to read the news. But this technique also asks them to share the stories they read with their friends on Facebook. Instructions for Sharing a Link on Facebook

3. The key is that they can’t share a link with ALL their friends. They have to pick no more than two lists with which they share each story. This gets the students thinking about how different audience value different information. Or how different audiences value the same information, but for different reasons. Instructions for Sharing Links With Specific Lists

Sharing an article on Facebook4. Finally, with each link that a student posts she is required to “Say something about this link …” It doesn’t count if the annotation is merely a re-phrasing of the facts in the story. And it doesn’t count if the student merely writes about why she likes the story. The annotation must answer the question “So What?” for that particular list. The goal here is get students to change their belief that writing is about self-expression into a journalistic mindset in which writing is selfless expression.

Journalists have to give audiences what they want and need, and often must go to great lengths to explain to them why they need it. This isn’t paternalism. This is a service, and it’s the same one that attorneys and physicians and financial advisers provide. The choice remains in the customer’s hands. But we — as journalists — have a professional obligation to provide the best advice on the most relevant information possible.

Grading: You have two choices for grading this assignment. One option is to get a Facebook account and require that all of your students friend you and put you on every list they’ve created for the class. That way you’ll be able to see what they’re doing and use your own rubric to score their efforts. The other option is to have the students write a weekly reflection about their experiences sharing stories with their friends. What did they share with whom? How did they describe it? What didn’t they share? Why not? What responses did they get from their friends?

(For the sake of ease, you may consider creating a mock version of this assignment in which students simply write Word documents using imaginary friends, imaginary lists, imaginary stories or use an imaginary social network. But do not do that. It smacks of being phoney. And students — and journalists — hate phonies.

Top 10 Best Things About David Broder

The future of news looks less bright today with the death of David Broder, one of the best journalists of the 20th century. I had the change to work with him at The Washington Post, and all I can think about today is how much I’d enjoy replaying the last 50 years of his life, the last 10 of mine and putting us at the same news organization again.

Here are the Top 10 Best Things that the students in my journalism classes need to know about Mr. Broder.

10. Be a reporter first and an analyst second. Long after Mr. Broder was a television talking head, a syndicated columnist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, he knocked on the doors of voters in the Ohio River Valley.

9. Respect democracy. Mr. Broder believed in the value of public service and respected the sacrifice of candidates and elected representatives. I saw him treat the most influential members of both parties as human beings rather than targets, even as he probed them with smart, aggressive questions. I suspect the esteem in which he held public service allowed him to have high expectations that required tough questions.

8. Do not be driven by the “scoop.” By the time I had the chance to meet Mr. Broder, political journalism was already on its way to being driven mostly by the ability to deliver small details before your competitors could put together a cogent narrative. But even then, he cared more about being able to explain the story than break it.

7. Write plainly. Mr. Broder’s columns, news stories and books are a pleasure to read for their precision and economy of words. His prose seemed to be designed to make people feel smarter than they really were rather than dumber.

6. Work hard. I suspect that if given the choice between a deadline and party, Mr. Broder would choose the deadline every time.

5. Clean up your office. Seriously. Mr. Broder’s was a death trap. The La Brea Tar Pits of political reporting. Nobody’s perfect, after all.

4. Try new things. Mr. Broder was doing live online discussions with readers in 1998. What’s your excuse?

3. Have a sense of humor about yourself. During one of those early online discussions, the website’s political editor sent him an email of thanks and encouragement. Mr. Broder’s response is one I hope to get made into a t-shirt one day: “Did I do something bad on the Internet?”

2. Be an optimist in a world of cynics and naysayers. Mr. Broder cheered for the Cubs. He never tried to convince anyone that the world was worse than it is, and nor did he try to convince them it was better.

1. Take the kids to lunch. When I’m 81, inshallah, I’ll still remember the lunch I had with Mr. Broder. Just he and I. He had lunch with me not because he wanted anything from me. Not because he owed me anything. But because I asked for his time and he was kind enough to offer it. It was sometime around the 2004 election and we talked about his 1981 book, The Changing of the Guard. I had been wondering what the book would look like if it were a series on about yet another generation of political advisers and candidates. We talked about how it could be interactive and multimedia. He let me ask questions and make statements that alternated between naive and presumptuous. But he never checked his Blackberry, never looked around the room and never interrupted.

Mr. Broder had so many wonderful characteristics that I try to emulate. Being a great journalists is just one, and far from the most important. He was a great journalist because he was so much more. And I hope that the future of journalism can yield many more in his mold.