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.