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Tweeting wisely & the dangers of social media: Q&A

News outlets are increasingly using social media to break stories or air points of view better left unsaid. Twitter especially has been a platform for trouble for some media professionals who may have tweeted inappropriate comments, or broke news that wasn’t quite accurate. But it isn’t just Twitter. One need only follow the example of Reddit, which became a hot spot for rumormongering and false reports during the initial Boston bombing coverage. The question becomes whether social media is worth the missteps that come along with using it. Are journalists scared to tweet?

Brett Whitmarsh, social media coordinator at Portland, Maine’s WCSH-TV and WLBZ-TV, shares his views on the risks and benefits of connecting on a social media level with viewers and how to wisely use this relatively new reporting tool:

Q: What is your role as social media coordinator?

Brett Whitmarsh (BW): I monitor all of our NEWS CENTER social media accounts, of which there are many. I will live tweet from either our WCSH6 or WLBZ2 accounts when there is breaking news, like last week during the Boston Bombing situation. I also study and report about trends in social media. I try to focus on issues related to users’ privacy. In my reporting, I look to explain (and debunk) a lot of common misunderstanding about social media. I also work with our parent company Gannett, and our newsroom staff, about best practices in social media and journalism.

Q: There have been plenty of journalists within the industry who have tweeted inappropriate comments and been suspended or even fired. Do you think social media is a danger to journalists in any way? Why or why not?

BW: I think there is a danger in not embracing it, and taking it seriously. Most importantly, I feel there is a danger in not applying the same rules of journalism ethics to social media that we apply to our reporting on TV/print/or Web. Just because the medium has changed doesn’t mean our ethics, or approach, should be any different. I have a saying in my newsroom; if you are comfortable saying something on TV, during our broadcast, then go ahead and post it on social media. All that said, you can let your hair down (a bit) on social media. This is a chance to have fun with viewers/readers, but still be smart about it. Know where the line is and just don’t cross it. Always think before you post. This is a chance for people to connect with you on a whole new level. It’s often a more personal connection, and one that translates over to how we report and how they respond to our reporting.

Q: Have you ever had experience with any journalists who have felt anxious over tweeting professionally? If so, what tips do you give them?

BW: I have a newsroom full of veteran reporters. Our newsroom is rare in the sense that employees come to WCSH6 and stay for a long time. So when I started to approach some of our staff about joining Twitter, some were hesitant because they didn’t want to be those people who just tweeted about their lunch.

Before they commit to anything, I show them examples of journalists who are doing Twitter right. I go to the journalists (on Twitter) who have experience and personality. It’s more than just teasing the story coming up at six, it’s about connecting with viewers. I often ask them who are other journalists they respect and then we go looking for those reporters on Twitter. We look over what they are, and are not, doing and then craft an approach from there. I have journalists who only tweet about the story they are covering every day. That’s fine; it works to our need of informing people about what’s going on. I encourage reporters to tweet as much information about their story as they are comfortable to do, even more so during breaking news.

In the past, I have handed over the reins of an account to a journalist who might have some hesitation. These days all of our journalists have iPhones (and most are now on Twitter), but back when we were really getting started on Twitter we had a handful of iPhones and a couple of iPads. So I would setup the @WCSH6 account on a mobile device for a journalist and let them play with it for a couple of weeks. Let them get the feel for it, then come back with any questions. It’s all about letting them play and discover if it’s right for them.

Q: How does your newsroom approach social media? Do you have newsroom discussions? Policies in place?

BW: Our parent company Gannett is very advanced when it comes to social media in the newsroom. We have a brilliant team that looks at the best ways to use social media and they help us. We have polices and guidelines. These guidelines help us understand how various social media networks work within the news world. Each social network has their own terms of service, so these guidelines help us (as journalists) to better understand the social networks rules. For example when can an image be used from Facebook? They have also designed a breaking news handbook with specifics on social media.

We also include social media as part of the news discussion every day. What are people talking about today on Facebook and Twitter? Is there a story they’re talking about that we need to be paying more attention to? How are people reacting to the big story of the day? Did a certain story get a lot of shares or re-tweets? At times the viewers, through social media, will ask great question that might be better than our own.

Social media can’t be a one away conversation in a newsroom. You have to read every comment and hear what people are talking about. You have to pay attention to that engagement. We are living in a two-screen society. Most people are either taking your news from social media already, or are watching our evening broadcast with their smart phone in hands. So we need to work with that and not be afraid of it.

Q: Have you ever had to rein anyone back in for their use of social media?

BW: Not really. A lot of our journalists use personal and professional Facebook accounts. Most just have one Twitter account. There are times when we’ll get information that we’ll hold back from tweeting until we can get it triple checked. The temptation is to tweet or Facebook out something as soon as you get it. You still have to check your sources, even with social media. Yes, you can delete something as soon as it’s posted, but even in that flash of a second the damage can be done.

About a year ago we had a story of an officer being shot, on his last day of service, during a standoff. I saw the story develop on Twitter from our viewers. At first it was just that there was a standoff. After about a half hour, a small handful of people tweeted that the officer had been killed. I had no confirmation on this. The temptation would have been to re-tweet the people who were saying this, but they were not officials. They were just people who had “heard” he was shot. This is how social media rumors can escalate into “fact” without being verified. I never thought about re-tweeting them. Instead we reached out to the folks who were tweeting and find out where they were getting their information? At around midnight, we did get it confirmed that the officer had died in the standoff, but prior to the confirmation we had no way of knowing if the people on Twitter were right or wrong.

Q: How does your station tend to use social media the most? Promotion? Engagement, etc?

BW: We use Facebook more for engagement and feedback, but we’ll also use it to get the word out about something. We use it less for promotion, though we are starting to more. Snowstorms are a big deal up here. Every big storm we’ll ask for people to post images and weather conditions from their area on our Facebook page. A couple of years ago we had what was expected to be a hurricane, but turned out to be a tropical storm. Based on the feedback of the conditions reported to us on Facebook, we knew exactly where the worst damage had been done. Our coverage helped drive more attention to that part of the state. If it weren’t for that real-time feedback we wouldn’t have known just how bad the damage was in that area for possibly a day or more.

Twitter we use for a variety of options. It’s more for delivery and steady reporting, but we also use it a lot for engagement too. Twitter is faster by design. It’s more like a real-time conversation – it feels like live reporting. Facebook can take more time to grow a conversation. Both Twitter and Facebook need to have a personality. You need to be able to converse with your viewers/users.

Q: Do you believe the benefits outweigh the risks? Why or why not?

BW: I absolutely do, because I trust my fellow journalists’ judgment. Always go with your “journalistic gut” before posting. The public expects us to report responsibly, and social media is just another medium for us to do that. Responsible reporting and credibility is something we take very seriously in our broadcasts – and therefore we take it equally serious on social media. Social media has become one of the greatest tools for journalism and as much as we want to be first with our reporting, it’s still far more important to be right.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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