4 lessons from Columbia’s social media debate and related events

Social Media Week in New York ended last Friday night at Columbia University’s Journalism School, as social media editors, journalism students and social media aficionados continued conversations about guidelines and best practices that had occurred during a previous Social Media Weekend and started with a student government debate.

Columbia’s student government launched a debate in December on the motion, “Your boss should regulate your use of social media,” and initiated a discussion among the school’s students, faculty, and friends that foreshadowed many of the conversations during the Social Media Weekend in late January. That weekend brought Brian Stelter, Eric Carvin, Liz Heron and others to campus. Carvin and Heron returned last Friday for the Social Media Week wrapup, which also brought to Columbia Reuters’s Anthony De Rosa, Mashable’s Emily Banks, NBCLatino’s Adrian Carrasquillo, CBS Sports’s Tiffany Black, and Black Enterprise’s Marcia Wade Talbert. But all of these social media super stars missed last December’s debate.

Here, then, in an easily-accessible Poynter-esque list, is what these folks — and you — can learn from the social media debate:

1. Young journalists are eager to help shape our profession. We have opinions, are not afraid to share them, and (sometimes) know what we’re talking about.

The debate was organized by students, moderated by students, and debated by students. Sean Easter and Erin Cauchi voiced eloquent arguments in favor of regulation—“[social media regulations] are based on the same standards and principles that we have applied to our reporting for generations,” said Cauchi—and Elaisha Stokes and Adam McCauley hit back with equally strong arguments against regulation. “Isn’t it most important that we speak our own minds and have [our opinions] be made clear?” asked McCauley.

2. There should be repercussions for improper use of social media.

Both sides agreed, however, that a journalist’s improper use of social media—spouting a racial slur, for example—was grounds for punishment. Journalists are public figures, they said, represent their parent company, and have a responsibility to uphold their employer’s reputation. Since a news organization’s most valuable asset is its reputation as an impartial, trustworthy source of news, both sides concurred that a journalist undermining that reputation deserves to be disciplined.

That said, the sides differed when trying to define “improper.” Should a journalist covering a political beat be allowed to tweet his support for a politician? Should he be allowed to ‘like’ a politician’s page on Facebook? Who uses Google Plus? All of these questions received different answers.

3. Journalists are smart. The audience is stupid.

Still, the consensus seemed to be that ‘old-school objectivity’ is a myth: we all have biases, both sides said, and we can only try to overcome these biases in our reporting. Journalists understand this truth. Audiences do not.

The pro-regulation side accordingly argued that because audiences continue to believe that journalists are objective, and because audiences are wont to attack the press whenever it strays from its supposed objectivity, it is journalists’ responsibility to continue to shine the veneer of old-school objectivity and pretend to be objective.

The anti-regulation side, of course, said that journalists should favor transparency over objectivity, and that audiences deserve to know a journalist’s biases.

This tension came to a head when the debaters turned to the Associated Press’s new social media guidelines.

“While there are some interesting points in there,” anti-regulation crusader McCauley said of the guidelines, “perhaps one of the most interesting for us was—I don’t want to say naïveté, but, maybe…”

McCauley went on to question how the AP’s reporters were supposed to effectively do their jobs when the guidelines warn against following controversial characters, like politicians, on Twitter, liking controversial pages on Facebook, or doing whatever one does on Google Plus.

“In most of these media,” he said, “direct contact is only possible if you are ‘friends’ or ‘following.’ So I wonder how—if you can only look at surface depth at any one of your contacts—how it is that you’re supposed to gain access to them?”

That’s when the AP’s Standards Editor, Tom Kent, a professor at the J-School who was attending the debate, offered a reply.

“I guess I should respond…about old people and not getting it and so forth,” Kent started out. “We do get it. We know some stuff.”

He explained that AP reporters can friend or follow newsmakers if they must (though that is discouraged), and that Twitter lists offer a nice compromise between having to follow someone controversial and not having access to that person’s tweets.

“The reason that we’re concerned,” Kent continued, “is that here, at 116th and Broadway, we know all about this stuff. We get it… Not everybody does. There are many many people in the United States and around the world who very poorly understand Twitter and Facebook, and [who] are quite subject to silly comments about journalists who friend various people, and make implications about what that means.”

By imposing a set of social media guidelines, Kent said, the AP can tell its audience what to expect from AP reporters.

4. Social media norms are still developing; involve all stakeholders before making a brash regulatory decision.

The pro-regulation side agreed with Kent. Audiences and journalists, they argued, deserve to know what is considered appropriate on social media.

The anti-regulation side, by contrast, wondered why professional journalists “need regulations to be conscious about how we speak.”

In the end, the debate was a draw: 50 percent of voters said that “the boss” should regulate his or her journalists’ use of social media, while the other 50 percent thought that “the boss” should not.

And the debate continued at Social Media Weekend, where Eric Carvin was asked about the AP’s social media guidelines and offered an identical (albeit less snarky) explanation to the one Kent had given a month earlier.

Nancy Scola, tech and politics correspondent for The Atlantic, described how GOP congresspeople decided that, in this new session of Congress, they were entitled to keep their Twitter followers even if they had changed offices (and hence handles). Indeed, Scola said, social media made the person more important than the office.

The Times’ Jennifer Preston, techPresident’s Nick Judd, and Elizabeth Warren’s chief digital strategist Brent Blackaby wondered when—or whether—politicians will begin to distinguish between their official social media accounts and their campaign accounts.

This debate did not end with Social Media Weekend and it did not end last Friday at the close of Social Media Week. Nor did it end with the student debate in December. Individual power will continue to challenge institutional control, and journalism will continue to evolve. But as it does, the voices of young journalists must continue to be heard, and must help shape our future.

Jake Heller (@hellerjake), Class President of the Columbia Journalism School, offers special thanks to Russ Finkelstein, who was both the brains and the brawn behind the debate, Mohammed Ademo, who planned everything to a tee and kept everyone on time, Nigel Chiwaya, technical expert, and everyone who helped conceptualize, plan, and execute the debate. And, of course, a big thanks to everyone who showed up!

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