A journalism educator wonders: How can I teach students how to maintain their credibility?

The scenes from “The Newsroom” seem quite quaint in retrospect. 

I am preparing lessons in which I discuss the use of social media in daily journalism, how it has altered the daily lives of reporters who are now expected to tweet, live-stream, photograph and record events all while they’re simultaneously gathering information and interviewing people.

During class discussions, I like to take students back to the days when Twitter was just becoming a democratizing force in journalism, when civilians were sending dispatches from the front lines of revolutions abroad, where those enjoying a spring day in Boston went from watching marathon runners cross the finish line to fleeing bomb debris, tweeting out photos and reports as they fled.

While tools like Twitter have revolutionized journalism and made it possible for reporters to publish information from their phones, the revolution, at least in my journalism classrooms, is always presented alongside cautionary tales and admonitions.

Verify everything you see on social media.

Don’t retweet a link you haven’t checked out first.

Be skeptical of everything.

As a class, we review not only how the advent of social media upended traditional news collection with its quicksilver distribution, particularly during news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, we also examine the multitude of errors made when the rush to publish superseded news judgment. 

That’s where HBO’s “The Newsroom” comes in. I show the students scenes from the final season of the Aaron Sorkin drama about a fictional cable news network. “The Newsroom” is journalism as Sorkin, the guy behind “The West Wing,” wanted it to be: ethical, moral, thoughtful. The show took real events and viewed them through a retroactive lens of aspirational journalism, of how Sorkin wished news outlets had covered breaking news.

In the episode about coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, there was reluctance among the fictional journalists to use material gathered on Twitter, particularly given social media platform’s reputation for rumor-mongering, its tendency to publish first and ask questions later.

After I play those scenes, my students and I discuss the multiple pressures journalists face when trying to use technology to gather and distribute news. Inevitably, a consensus builds toward this conclusion: it’s better to be last and right, than to report something first and be wrong.

But, as of Feb. 14, we don’t live in that kind of world any longer. We are in a world where journalists don’t just have to worry about double-checking the information and material they gather via social media. They now have to worry about their identities being stolen and their work actively thwarted by nameless, faceless actors, hell-bent on discrediting journalism and journalists in real time.

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, journalists did as they’ve been taught to do: use social media to reach out to students who had published posts from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and to seek permission to re-publish their images and, possibly, to interview them. Say what you will about the propriety of reaching out to teenagers as their classmates were dying, but this is how it’s done in the age of social media.

What happened afterward, as detailed by the Poynter Institute among other news outlets, was that people or groups created fake social media accounts and pretended to be journalists, impersonated those who were actively trying to report on the Parkland shooting. Those fake accounts, bearing the real images and bios of journalists, asked students for videos and photos of dead bodies, according to Poynter.

In the midst of trying to report the story for the Miami Herald, journalist Alex Harris told Poynter that false tweets attributed to her were published on Twitter and shared on online platforms including a “white nationalist message board." She told CNET that people followed her social media posts and discouraged potential sources from speaking with her by spreading lies about her.

What do I tell my students as they prepare to be journalists when there are forces trying to sully the very notion that journalism is truth-telling? Where those charged with crafting the first rough draft of history are themselves under attack? When forces are sabotaging reporters’ credibility and interfering with their ability to work? When news organizations are being vociferously undermined by the president who labels news narratives he dislikes as “fake,” when indeed, they are verifiably true?

I am discouraged.

I believe journalism to be a calling to tell the untold stories, to shed light into dark places, to hold the powerful accountable. With forces intent on sowing seeds of distrust into the fabric of national discourse with the intent of obliterating faith in our news media, I don’t know what to tell my students. Actually, I do know what to tell them: Carry on.

  • Profile picture for user Meredith O'Brien

    Meredith O'Brien

    Writer and author Meredith O'Brien teaches journalism at Northeastern University. 

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