Future of College Media: Inspiring reads and excellent blogs

I’m about half way through my series exploring the different trends and problems facing collegiate newspapers and media, and I figured it’d be pertinent to post some of the articles and websites that I’ve been using for inspiration and supplemental information. If you want to read the series thus far, click here.

This blog is my bible. Run by Dan Reimold, College Media Matters covers rising trends, interesting or controversial going-ons and story ideas in the collegiate media world. Reimold updates about once a day, and his posts are explicit in detail and usually contain some excellent analysis. For the day-to-day happenings in the world of college news and reporting, College Media Matters is one of the best resources available.

I’m not going to lie; this Colombia Journalism Review article is extremely long, and incredibly thorough. While it doesn’t specifically address the specific issues regarding the future of collegiate journalism, it does cover in great detail the issues facing modern journalism, and the steps professional journalists are taking to avoid a systematic collapse. Especially relevant is the section on a university’s role in the process, including publishing student work and the large number of journalism centers calling higher education institutions home.

During my enrollment in David Ryfe’s Future of Journalism class over winter break, I had a sudden epiphany regarding the problems facing modern journalism, and the difficulty in solving them. Although the writings and ideas of Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen were promoted heavily throughout the class, I always held to a lingering doubt in the back of my mine regarding these academic’s view of the future of news. Then I read Starkman’s essay. Although I was careful to avoid sympathizing too much with a viewpoint obviously favorable to the kind of hard-hitting print journalism I enjoy and promote, his arguments won me over. Though it’s not the best piece for a beginning reader to start with, Starkman’s essay is a thoughtful and needed reaction to the kind of ‘accepted’ future of news promoted by people such as Shirky and Jarvis.

Though it’s not entirely devoted to collegiate news, Romenesko (a former writer for Poynter) is one of the best media bloggers out there, which more often than not contains the actions of a collegiate outlet. Romenesko also has a bit of a larger audience than College Media Matters, so his blog post about a college paper naming a rape victim creates more of a conversation amid his audience than a similar post would have on CMM. Still, Romensko’s commentary is usually on-point and logical, and his blog is a great source of media news.

As hard as it is to admit, journalism schools play a large role in the development and training of young journalists. While it’s nice to have an active and viable student press, journalism schools need to be there from the beginning to help train young journalists and co-develop a future for the business. Faculty at these schools have a responsibility to advocate for their profession, taking the form of mentoring student journalists, starting local journalistic partnerships and more. Teaching the inverted pyramid style won’t cut it anymore.

All issues facing the world of journalism really begin with one problem; how to reach and connect with an audience that shuns newspapers, television broadcasts and most regular news. Czerski, a Polish writer who’s work was translated into English, lays out the kind of unspoken mindset that many younger people have. His argument is really that the generations born using the Internet fundamentally see the world differently than their elder peers. It’s a terrifying thing to realize that making journalism successful in the future will require the kind of humongous overhaul in how we look at the world to work and remain profitable. (Also, the comments section hosts a great debate. Definitely worth a read.)

David Carr, the media reporter and resident crotchety old man of the New York Times, is a different breed of journalist. In the Future of News class I mentioned above, Carr seemed like the opposite of new thinkers such as Shirky and Rosen, so I was immediately fascinated with the prospect of the two eating dinner together. Carr’s essay didn’t really cover the debate raging between Shirky and people such as Starkman, but he did focus on an intriguing aspect of the online world I hadn’t thought about before; the lack of intimate contact. Carr ends his essay saying, “…you can follow someone on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, quote or be quoted by them in a newspaper article, but until you taste their bread, you don’t really know them.” Though there’s no connection to collegiate readings, I feel as though the limits of social media and the online world are an excellent reminder for collegiate journalists; interviews through email or Twitter are never as good as those done in person.

While those aren’t all the readings, sources and tools I use to go about this project, it’s a pretty good representation of the wide variety and information that I use to try and understand what college media is all about. If you’re reading this and think a piece or blog is missing or would fit right in, either email me here or leave a comment down below.

Future of College Media: Should a newspaper rely on Facebook to obtain the name of a suicide victim?

This post is the fourth in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on the role social media plays in the coverage of controversial topics for collegiate media.

Image courtesy of http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

Last week, Louisiana State University freshman finance major and Sigma Chi fraternity member Keller Zibilich committed suicide, bringing the university and Greek community into shock. LSU’s student newspaper, the Daily Reveille, began reporting on the story almost immediately, at first only identifying the student as an LSU student, but later  identifying Zibilich by name before any official university announcement was released through Facebook and Twitter. Days later, (as documented by this College Media Matters post) harsh criticism arose from the paper’s decision to rely on social media to identify the student, with students calling it ‘unprofessional‘ and ‘disrespectful.’

CMM’s Daniel Remoid emailed Daily Reveille Editor-in-Chief Matthew Jacobs to ask about the decision to publish Ziblich’s name, and here’s what he said (full text here):

“Even at a large school like LSU, gossip and the rumor mill operate within a fairly isolated bubble, especially now that social media is so dominant in college students’ lives. It’s vital, therefore, for a college newspaper to be the arbiter of such gossip and to provide definitive answers. While there are times when I would not accept social media as a news source, there are other times when information is so ubiquitously known that it becomes corroborative.

“There was a flood of attention across social media from LSU mourners and sympathizers who pinpointed the suicide victim’s name.  Dozens of posts across the Internet naming the same person left little doubt, particularly the ones written on the victim’s own Facebook page, which anyone can see because it’s accessible to the public.  LSU is big but close-knit, especially the Greek community, and we felt the news was universally accepted enough so that we weren’t releasing anything people didn’t already know.  We were sure not to include details about the method by which the suicide was committed or the circumstances, because those things become gritty and gossipy.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but what Jacobs said in this email is remarkably similar to the discussion happening in the Nevada Sagebrush’s Opening the News group on Facebook regarding the false HIV outbreak several weeks ago. In a nutshell, the Sagebrush attempted to use Facebook and Twitter to find out more about a rumored HIV spreading, but their posts and tweets lead to additional misinformation, especially when no new information or clarification was posted until days later (see this Storify post). I’ve blogged about how I felt the Sagebrush was mistaken in their coverage before, but the conversation has persisted within their Facebook group.

The common theme here is the actual or perceived misuse of social media in collegiate reporting. Undoubtedly, Facebook and Twitter play a huge role in the lives and thinking methods of young journalists, because they play a huge role in the vast majority of college students. The issue, rather, lies in the ethics of relying on social media for sources, interview questions, and accurate information. While social media can play an important role in collegiate reporting, its uses must be guarded to prevent the viral spread of misinformation and rumor propagation, which holds greater importance due to vastly increased speed in which social media spreads information.

In regards to the Daily Revellie, I would caution that their reliance on social media in identifying Zibilich could hold potentially huge and negative implications. Although Jacobs implied the information as corroborative, it’s remarkably easy for misinformation to spread quickly throughout the social media sphere. For example 15 minutes after Onward State published a false account of Joe Paterno’s death, the information was picked up by @BreakingNews and CBS Sports minutes later, reaching millions of followers. In a situation as controversial and attention-grabbing as a student committing suicide, it’s highly imperative to completely ensure the information being published, whether online, in print or over social media is completely accurate. As addressed in this New York Times piece, social media has created a fear in both individuals and media outlets of missing out on big news, which leads to situations such as Onward State where a falsity was spread due to a lack of diligence in checking the facts. Although Zibilich’s identity may have appeared certain to editors of the Daily Revellie, such an important story should have more than a handful of Facebook posts and tweets to back it up.

Likewise, the Nevada Sagebrush’s use of social media during the purported HIV crisis, although not intentional, helped lead to upticks in rumors and misinformation (Here’s my Storify version, again). As I’ve already detailed my complaints with the coverage, here’s a snippet of a post by UNR student Brian Parcon:

This is not because of the articles that you ran, but because of the constant attention the Sagebrush *publicly* gave the rumor *before* the articles ran. In an effort to gain all the information very quickly, members of the Facebook group were asked share the post discussing the emerging story. Essentially, the Sagebrush urged the members of the group to spread the rumor even farther.

THAT is the problem.

Instead sifting through the flow of information from interested parties who had the ability and access to investigate (like the reports that poured onto the internet during events like the Arab Spring and the 99% Protests), the Sagebrush dropped a large, unwieldy rumor in the middle of a public place and proceeded to ask the community what it was and to go tell their friends about it. (Emphasis mine)

The unifying issue here is a sense of responsibility collegiate newspaper editors feel toward identifying and clarifying rumors on their campuses. Both Jacobs and members of the Sagebrush identified their concern with allowing rumors to spread, in a sense becoming the ‘arbiter’ of such gossip. The issue with that role is that one needs solid evidence before continuing with publication of  a story, and the issue with social media is the nature of the platform leads to a greater chance for incorrect or misunderstood information to be seen at a greater level. Relying on social media is a gamble, and when readers are quick to anger and more than willing to show their frustration, it’s not worth the headache and hassle. As I’ve said before, it’s always better to be right than to be first. Remember that your audience won’t care who scooped a story, but they will care if you over-reach and get the story wrong.

Reaction to Marc Johnson becoming UNR President

  1. The Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents approved Marc Johnson as the new President of UNR today. Here’s a timeline of events from when he was first recommended to when the Regents made their decision.
    Yesterday, the search committee for the next UNR President recommended Marc Johnson to the BoR. Here’s how the story broke:
  2. Share
    The regents have just voted to recommend Marc Johnson to be the next President of UNR.
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 20:57:55
  3. Share
    RT @donica: The regents have just voted to recommend Marc Johnson to be the next President of UNR.
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 20:59:27
  4. Share
    Marc Johnson is the final candidate for #UNR president. The board of regents will vote on his appointment Friday.
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 20:59:59
  5. Share
    Board of Regents search committee recommends Marc Johnson for UNR president fb.me/1ZPHYvFnW
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 21:11:46
  6. Share
    Johnson is currently UNR interim president. Final decision by Board of Regents Friday. on.rgj.com/ImTeea.
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 21:22:31
  7. Share
    “@donica: The regents have just voted to recommend Marc Johnson to be the next President of UNR.” solid move, provides stability.
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 21:23:22
  8. Share
    MT @rgj: Marc Johnson recommended as UNR’s president… on.rgj.com/JcCZ6w // Did anyone not know this when the search began?
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 21:48:37
  9. Share
  10. Share
    Marc Johnson recommended as UNR’s next president. Will be forwarded to Board of Regents who meet Friday in Vegas. #UNR
    Wed, Apr 18 2012 23:04:38
  11. The BoR met today for a special session (here’s the agenda: http://bit.ly/JtrbLa). After the news broke, most of the reaction was positive, with some detractors.
  12. Share
    Marc Johnson has been picked to become the University of Nevada, Reno president. Get updates on rgj.com.
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 14:53:47
  13. Share
    RT @rgj: Marc Johnson has been picked to become the University of Nevada, Reno president. Get updates on rgj.com.
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 14:54:27
  14. Share
    Congratulations to our newest University President, Marc Johnson. We’re happy to have you 🙂 GO PACK!
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 15:22:46
  15. Share
    Marc Johnson approved as UNR president: The Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents selected Universi… on.rgj.com/I8LsGd
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 15:25:33
  16. Share
    Congrats to @phidelt alum Marc Johnson for becoming the 16th #UNR president!
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 15:30:03
  17. Share
    Marc Johnson is a good man and a strong leader. The university made a great decision. #PackCity
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 15:32:44
  18. Share
    Marc Johnson, the 16th president of the University of Nevada. Welcome aboard! 🙂
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 15:45:33
  19. Share
    RT @RSJNevada: Marc Johnson selected as #UNR president. Congrats! on.rgj.com/I8LsGe
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 16:12:17
  20. Share
    RT @NevadaWolfPack: Congratulations to Marc Johnson on being named the president of our great institution here at the University of Nevada!
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 16:32:39
  21. Share
    Congrats to Dr. Marc Johnson on being named President of @UNRnews. Students, faculty will benefit from his continued leadership
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 17:27:17
  22. Share
    Reid statement on Dr. Marc Johnson: HARRY REID NEWS RELEASE WASHINGTON, D.C.- Sen. Harry Reid issued the followi… bit.ly/HYnkTr
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 17:53:39
  23. Share
    The decision is in. Johnson will become UNR’s new president. I am certainly not surprised. It’s impossible to divert or bit.ly/JrjHpm
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 18:59:37
  24. Share
    The best: Marc Johnson named University of Nevada Reno UNR President j.mp/IaYFKw
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 19:26:03

Is this RGJ headline misleading?

While prowling through today’s front pages (through the wonderful Newseum, of course,) from Nevada, I became interested in how the RGJ decided to play the story about the University of Nevada’s presidential search committee recommending Dr. Marc Johnson for the position of president. Johnson has served as interim president since the death of his predecessor, Milton Glick, and it came as a surprise to no one that he was selected by the committee. I’ve liked Johnson since I found out that he helped found a chapter of my fraternity as Emporia State University in Kansas.) The RGJ, as you can see below, decided to play the story up big.

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, I think the Johnson headline could be easily misconstrued by someone not overtly familiar with the entire story. The headline, “Hometown candidate gets nod,” is misleading because Reno isn’t really the hometown of Johnson. If you look up his bio, Johnson was actually born and educated in Kansas, and only came to Nevada in 2008 to become provost. Merriam-Webster defines hometown as, “The city or town where one was born or grew up; also : the place of one’s principal residence.” 

Technically, the Reno is the hometown of Johnson, as he has lived here for four years. But using the word hometown could lead to someone assuming that Johnson is a Nevada native or UNR graduate, which is not true. I know how difficult it is to write decent headlines when constrained by columns and font size, but it’s critical to make sure that headlines are as accurate as possible. Especially when it’s on the front page.

Future of College Media: What role should collegiate outlets have on national issues?

This post is the third in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on how collegiate newspapers can stay financially solvent in a depressed market for advertisements.

Image courtesy of blog.oncampusadvertising.com

Two days ago, The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina published this column by DTH news reporter Memet Walker, detailing his attempt to interview Newt Gingrich at a rally in Greensboro. According to Walker, after asking one question about a spat between Gingrich and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, he was immediately and forcibly detained by security. The subsequent column has been making the rounds, from a Washington Post blogger to College Media Matters to Dave Weigel, and the response from Gingrich’s side has been typical- “It didn’t happen and the journalist is lying.”

While most of the reaction has seen this as yet another example of Gingrich being a cranky old man, I think it reveals a larger issue; collegiate journalists covering non-relevant topics. Of course, collegiate journalists want to cover ‘Big Events’ such as a presidential candidate coming to town, but oftentimes it can backfire (as with the must-discussed Onward State incident and death of Joe Paterno) or not reach the same quality as other, more professional organizations. The audience for a college paper is college students and campus life; unless there’s a direct or plausible connection (such as Barack Obama coming to campus) there’s little value in reporting on it.

Let me explain. One of the many, many of excellent pieces of advice I received from my old editor-in chief is that there’s no point for a college paper to report on something another outlet can do better and faster. While it’s tempting to try and get an interview with a big name like Newt Gingrich, any story coming from such an event should have some connection or tie to your campus. What kind of direct or indirect connection is there between Gingrich and that specific area of North Carolina?

Here’s an example using my own work: last September, I wrote a story detailing the congressional special election between Democrat Kate Marshall and Republican Mark Amodei. Rather than give an overview of the race, which had been done to death by the RGJ and Las Vegas Sun, I decided to make the main focus of the article related to how the race would affect higher education, as well as the relationship between the candidates and the state’s colleges and universities. Although there is plenty of room for improvement in that story, I believe it accomplishes my goal of having a unique viewpoint distinct  to my audience (UNR students).

Compare that story with this recent one, about the visits Republican candidates made to Nevada before the state’s primary. There’s no direct link to higher education at all in that article; it’s primarily concerned with the national race. If the audience for the Sagebrush wants to know about what GOP candidates are saying, they’d most likely check first with national outlets, then local media outlets, and then the school newspaper. There’s no point in covering any event or story if it isn’t relevant and unique to your audience. Especially online, where readers can pick and choose the articles that interest them, writing and reporting on unique content is critical to attracting readers and separating one media outlet from the rest.

Now, this isn’t to say that a college paper should be confined entirely to cover on-campus events or student government affairs. While there’s nothing wrong with covering those events, no enterprising journalist wants to cover that during their college careers. The answer to this quandary is to find a piece of unique content that has at least some relationship with one’s home university. A great example of this is something I’ve blogged about before, when the University of Oregon Daily Emerald partnered with a professional  paper in Eugene to investigate some of the financial dealings made by a former Athletic Director. A few days ago, the Daily Princetonian published this investigation into the reasons surrounding a former professor’s suicide, one year later. These examples are potentially state-wide or even national news, yet their reporters were able to find a unique angle for their readers.

While collegiate outlets understandably won’t have that kind of in-depth reporting week-in and week-out, there are hundreds of awesome stories happening at college campuses every single year. Collegiate media shouldn’t try to cover national stories that don’t have anything to do with their campus, just because it’s a prominent issue. As a college media outlet, you have a responsibility to understand, follow and write what’s happening on your campus, because more often than not other local media outlets will either ignore or only reprint press releases from your university.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m an idiot? Let me know in the comments. I’ll try to respond to all of them.

How the Collegiate Times covered the 5th year anniversary of the VT shootings

Five years ago today, one of the deadliest school shootings of all time happened at Virginia Tech University, where deeply troubled student Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 classmates and professors before killing himself. The shootings stunned the nation, and prompted debates over collegiate safety and firearm laws. Five years later, a few newspapers in Virginia published stories related to the anniversary, but none of them compare to the scope of the university’s own paper.

The Collegiate Times (the university’s student-run newspaper) published this stark, eye-grabbing covertoday. I love it. For an issue like this, going out to a community that needs no reminder of what happened that April 16, this simple Roman numeral is more effective of a reminder than any picture of students mourning or Cho posing. That is a cover that demands to be read and to be picked up. The beginning text adds to the effect, saying,

“Time stood still each time Kristina Anderson heard about another traumatizing school shooting.

Anderson, who was injured in her French class in Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, 2007, feels a little bit of that pain return each time another shooting terrorizes another school.

“You were immediately taken back to your own experience even though they might be in Illinois or Finland or Ohio,” Anderson said. “Still, you can immediately relate to what happened, and you’re kind of in disbelief. At first, I started to feel a little bit of fear again. I felt, again, unsafe and scared and sadness and grief. It’s almost like you relive the Virginia Tech tragedy every time it happens.”

Beautiful. I have nothing else to add, really. Just a great front page tackling a heavy subject, and succeeding. You can check out other pages in the issue here, here and here, or check out all of the pages on Charles Apple’s blog. Here’s what Editor-in-Chief Zach Crizer had to say about the edition:

1. We used the Roman numeral for a couple reasons. It was originally considered because this is something we have done in the past. For our second anniversary, the Roman numeral II went the length of the page and a story ran between it. Now, that obviously still doesn’t explain why we use Roman numerals. The main reason is we feel there is no artistic element that fully captures the emotions or events of the day. No photo of one person or one thing can encapsulate what everyone feels, so we “mark” the passage of time with a literal mark. We feel these bold designs give people the opportunity to reflect on the time that has passed and still serve as a clear reminder that the greatest tragedy to strike our university is at another anniversary. The V was particularly appealing because we are “VT” and we used the extended lede of my story as a subtle reflection of the V to symbolize the reflecting being done on campus today.

2. Three people wrote stories for the edition (myself, news editor Nick Cafferky and features editor Chelsea Gunter). Design editor Victoria Zigadlo designed most of the issue, with some very significant contributions from design editor Danielle Buynak. The photos were mostly file art from previous events and anniversaries, but the most significant photos were from Mark Umansky and Paul Kurlak (who are both still current employees) and former photo editor Daniel Lin.

Future of College Media: Are college publications learning vehicles or actual businesses?

This post is the second in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This entry focuses on a gray area for collegiate media, between actual, professional businesses and learning opportunities for students.

UPDATE: I’ve removed the first part of this blog post because I felt that it was distracting from the real point of this post. I offer full apologies to anyone I offended or angered.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Nevada Sagebrush Assistant Sports Editor Michael Lingberg was fired last month. I emailed editor-in-chief Juan López to get his side of the story, but he refused to comment. Now, some people have accused me of being a bitter ex-employee out to smear and insult the Sagebrush, but I don’t want to write anything that I don’t know all of the details about.

Let me be clear; I’m writing about this topic because it’s not an isolated incident in the Sagebrush, but an entire rash of collegiate editors and writers being fired, resigning or being removed from their position. This post from College Media Matters goes over three firings alone this semester, including a cartoonist for the Daily Texan who was fired after an outpouring of condemnation over a Trayvon Martin cartoon. Just today, the managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Maneater resigned after a controversial April Fool’s edition.

This rash of firings deserves to be placed in context. Just about everyone on a collegiate news staff is about 18-21 and has a 1-3 years of prior journalism experience. Often, there’s no advisor in-office to make suggestions, leaving final decisions up to people barely old enough to drink. That’s how it works for the Sagebrush, and for any major independent college newspaper. And that’s how it should be.

For someone not familiar with the inner workings of a college newsroom, this sentiment can seem strange. Why not ask a journalism professional for help, in case tough ethical questions arise? But in my experience, working with a group of like-minded peers leads to the kind of innovation, storytelling risks and general independence that journalism needs to survive. Running features about a student’s abortion or attempted suicide can’t take the same chances and reach the same audience anywhere else in a j-school. Along with a greater level of independence found in these publications, college papers also reach a larger audience than running a single blog or publishing a newsletter. This is the sweet spot for journalists: freedom to experiment, and an active audience that is willing to comment, critique and provide feedback on said experiments.

It’s a romantic picture that I just painted, and unfortunately situations do arise where people either take advantage of the situation afforded them, or fall asleep on the job. Yet overwhelmingly, collegiate journalists are a dedicated bunch, who in their unique situation are able to learn and innovate much more than they would in an actual internship or journalism class.

That’s what irritates me about these recent firings and resignations. Yes, they made a mistake. Yes, they should apologize. But remember that college papers are primarily a learning institution, a place where mistakes happen and lessons are learned. There are certain rules that every journalist has to follow, but I believe there should be additional leeway when it comes to college papers. Should writers who break rules be punished? Yes. Should they be fired and excommunicated from the world of journalism? No.

My first year in high school, I decided to write a column in the school newspaper about why I thought Global Warming was false (I wasn’t very smart back then). Even stupider, I decided to copy and paste a few paragraphs from another article that I had read earlier that year, thinking them to be of a higher quality than what I could write. After the column was published, my journalism teacher took me outside and forced the truth out of me. Now, this man had every right to remove me from staff. If I had worked at an actual publication, I would be fired on the spot. Yet he decided to be lenient, and let a 14-year-old kid have a second chance. Two years later I was editor-in-chief of that paper, and here I sit, nearly six years past, and I have never forgotten that lesson. I will never fabricate anything that I write ever again, not because a journalism professor told me to, but because I actually lived through that experience.

So for the Sagebrush, I offer this advice: take these decisions more carefully. I know that a lawsuit is the last thing anyone wants, but it’s also important to remember the service they offer to the world of journalism in the future. In a blog post about helping fund the Daily Illini, Roger Ebert said, “Many, including myself, would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experience at Illini Media. It’s now time to give back.” A huge number of journalists in this country got their start at a campus publication, and I’m sure that they made plenty of mistakes along the way. Does it help journalism at all to treat these learning vehicles as actual businesses? The answer to that question is no, and I would recommend to any senior staff on a college paper to remember that mistakes may hurt now, but they will only build you up stronger in the future.

First vs. Right: The role of social media in the false HIV outbreak at UNR

Photo courtesy of topnews.in

Things got a little crazy at the University of Nevada, Reno last Wednesday when a handful of rumors about a possible HIV outbreak began to spread through social media outlets (I’m going to try my hardest to avoid any ‘viral’ based puns) and ended up as features on local broadcast news affiliates. In order to help clarify what exactly happened, I’ve attempted to put together a comprehensive narrative via Storify (which you can find here and recommend reading if you missed it.)

As one can see, the ‘rumors’ increased dramatically as soon as members of the Nevada Sagebrush began to tweet about it and post details of the story in their Opening the News Facebook group. Although they were careful to use words such as ‘possible’ and ‘rumored,’ most of the responses that I saw ignored those words and assumed that there actually was an HIV outbreak. What I can gather from group messages is that there was some kind of newsletter posted in the bathrooms of Nye Hall, which convinced Sagebrushers to start scouring through the social media landscape.

The allegations of someone trying to spread a sexually-transmitted disease aren’t something to be taken lightly. But even the process of launching an investigation into such a sensitive topic should be taken extremely seriously, and with the upmost caution. What the Nevada Sagebrush did, and more importantly how they went about reporting on this issue, was in my opinion irresponsible and not serving to the interests of their readers. While the rules of social media are constantly evolving and changing, there’s no reason why a serious news organization would publish inquires into rumors on their official social media accounts. To provide some criticism and context, I’m going to go bullet-by-bullet point through this event, and point out what the staff of the Sagebrush should of done to avoid the shitstorm that they partially caused.

  • Unreliable Sources:

It’s one thing to listen to rumors from friends, and then try to look into their veractiy. It’s another level entirely to take something published in a dorm bathroom as anything close to factual. If reporters heard additional rumors about an HIV outbreak, it might of made sense to give someone at Health Services or the dorms a call, but posting questions all over Facebook and Twitter is unlikely to lead to any kind of useful information, and is more likely to cause the kind of panic which happened on Wednesday. Keep any story which has the potential to be this damaging quiet, or the flood of rumors, half-truths and lies can overwhelm a news staff.

  • Suggestive headlines and a failure to update

A few hours after posting the HIV-related statuses on Facebook, a story went up on the Sagebrush website called, “BREAKING NEWS: Investigation over rumored HIV outbreak continues.” Rather than post any information in the story, the page suggests readers visit their Facebook page and ‘Opening the News‘ group. Although the last actual information about the story comes from Wednesday afternoon, the story is still up on the Sagebrush’s website six days later. After a letter from Health Services came out, news reporters on the Sagebrush have not commented or posted any additional information on the group, or on their website. It’s a bit of stretch to say that a rumored HIV investigation is continuing when there is no investigation. While I appreciate the sentiment of having an open group for students to comment and contribute to the Sagebrush, it’s not going to work if the staff doesn’t update, confirm and moderate the page.

These kind of social media mishaps aren’t uncommon. Although it happened on a much larger scale, Onward State got into a similar mess when covering the death of Joe Paterno. As documented in this Poynter article, editors at the site were deceived by an untrue email, and the subsequently false tweet was picked up by @BreakingNews and CBS Sports, both of which reached millions of readers. Subsequent criticism and outcry lead to a kind of infamy for the site’s editors and warning lesson about the power of social media.

Social media is a great tool to reach readers directly- there’s no argument there. What I’m saying is that it’s always better to be right than to be first. Readers commit to a publication when they feel that they can trust what it’s saying. Every error you commit, whether it’s a spelling error in a story down to an erroneous tweet, chips away at the public’s trust for a publication. And in an era of lower profits and decreased readership (especially for small collegiate papers), it’s more important than ever to be factually correct and responsive to the truth.

UPDATE: Turns out I’m not the only one who saw an issue. Enjolie Esteve of the Sagebrush wrote a column for the latest edition of the Sagebrush, detailing her issues with the over-reliance on social media. She hits a lot of the same points that I made, as well as some more unique perspectives. Definitely worth a look.

HIV rumors go viral at UNR

Storify works best if you start at the bottom, then work your way up.

  1. As of today, the Nevada Sagebrush still has an un-updated story on their website.
  2. Share
    #USA – Rumors of #HIV outbreak at #UNR spread like wildfire bit.ly/I1v5MH (via @hivhaven)
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 12:46:50
  3. Share
    Ohhh really? RT @EasyGayLife: Rumors of HIV outbreak at UNR spread like wildfire – msnbc.com on.msnbc.com/HOSlNz
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 01:00:00
  4. Share
    In #Reno #NV, a rumor of #HIV cluster spreads through college campus: ow.ly/a6hlk #AIDS
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 16:01:04
  5. Share
    I got an e-mail saying the HIV outbreak thing isn’t true. BUT STILL b safe ppl
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 00:44:47
  6. Share
    @kysisson Medical director at UNR Student Health Center: unfounded rumor of HIV infection on campus. SHC sees no indication that rumor true.
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 18:57:05
  7. Share
    Rumors of HIV outbreak at UNR spread like wildfire fb.me/F8kAtdFx
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 21:14:46
  8. Share
    Supposed Health Outbreak at UNR Not True bit.ly/HW9Zhe
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 19:41:15
  9. Share
    Relax people, it’s only a rumor. RT @KRNV Rumors of HIV outbreak at UNR spread like wildfire mynews4.com/news/local/sto…
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 21:24:47
  10. Both KRNV and KTVN picked up the story. KRNV left the narrative open, while KTVN’s denied it. As it turned out, KRNV’s ended up getting linked to by a number of different sources
  11. Share
    HIV rumor fact or fiction? It’s looking more and more true.
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 17:43:44
  12. Share
    The #UNR health center is denying rumors of an HIV outbreak on campus, but @TheSagebrush sez 75-100 students checked in past 48 hrs for HIV
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 18:56:46
  13. At 3:23, Student Health Center Director Cheryl Hug-English sent out an email saying that any rumors about the outbreak didn’t appear to have a factual basis. However, she did say that about 75-100 students had checked into the health center for STD testing. It is free STD testing week, after all.
  14. Share
    RT @TheSagebrush: Everything we know about the unproven HIV scare at UNR is updated on our Open the News group on.fb.me/HgU7bC UNR admin comment included
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 19:05:33
  15. Share
    BREAKING: Alleged HIV outbreak on university’s campus. Waiting for press release.
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 17:18:06
  16. Share
    apparently there’s an outbreak of herpes and HIV in 2 of the dorms #renoproblems #scaryAF #whyidontsleeparound #HERPESISFORLIFE
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 17:59:07
  17. Share
    I heard there was an hiv outbreak at unr, well I’m glad I go to kaplan and all we have is herpes
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 16:24:04
  18. Share
    RT @NieshyWins: Over 20 confirmed case of HIV in the UNR dorms. Go get tested students• Oh my God!•
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 15:08:45
  19. Share
    Uhhhh I hope this HIV breakout thing at unr isn’t true. Wrap it up ppl
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 14:39:59
  20. Share
    Da fuck is dis shit!? RT @TheSagebrush: If anyone has input about the unproven HIV outbreak at UNR, contact reporter @srmward
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 13:50:33
  21. Share
    Alright, so in the last few days we’ve been hearing rumors about an HIV outbreak in the dorms at UNR. One of our reporters called up Jerome Maese, the director of residential life, and he said he has been getting phone calls about it, but can’t confirm it’s true. Anybody with information about this please privately message me.
    Also, if anyone knows why Mike Ball was booted from the Nevada Wolf Pack football team please private inbox me.
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 14:28:15
  22. Share
    RT @TheSagebrush: If anyone has input about the unproven HIV outbreak at UNR, contact reporter @srmward
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 13:46:51
  23. At this point, several Nevada Sagebrush reporters began to look into the matter. Reporters sent out tweets and posted in an open Facebook group. Most people didn’t see the addition of “unproven” or “possible,” and began to assume that an actual outbreak had taken place.
  24. Share
    My prayers go out to the students from UNR who recently found out they are infected with HIV. Its going to be ok, its not the end.
    Wed, Apr 04 2012 13:24:35
  25. Share
    Apparently there’s an HIV outbreak at UNR… #howprecious
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 03:16:36
  26. Share
    Free sti and hiv testing at UNR health center. All you bitches better go!
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 16:27:28

Finalists named for UNR president

Here’s the release from the University:

Finalists named for University of Nevada, Reno presidency
Six candidates presented to joint meeting Thursday of the Presidential Search Committee and Institutional Advisory Committee

RENO, Nev. – Six individuals have been identified as finalists for the position of president of the University of Nevada, Reno:

  • Steven Roger Angle is provost of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Angle previously served as dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural and Natural Resources Program at the University of California, Riverside.
  • Rachel Toni Algaze Croson is division director of the Division of Social and Economic Sciences, part of the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. Croson serves in this role while on leave from the University of Texas at Dallas, where she served as professor and director of The Negotiations Center, a joint appointment between the School of Management and the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.
  • Yash P. Gupta is president and chief executive officer of SDP Telecom, Inc. Gupta previously served as dean of the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School.
  • Marc A. Johnson is interim president of the University of Nevada, Reno. Johnson previously served as executive vice president and provost at the University.
  • Sabah U. Randhawa is provost and executive vice president of Oregon State University. Randhawa previously served as vice provost for academic affairs and international programs at Oregon State.
  • Stephen G. Wells is president of DRI, the Desert Research Institute. Wells previously served as executive director of DRI’s Quaternary Sciences Center.

“The University of Nevada, Reno is a vibrant, public university, with a growing national reputation and a long-standing history of service to our state,” said James Dean Leavitt, member of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents and chair of the Regents’ Presidential Search Committee. “We are looking for a visionary leader to guide the University to the next echelon of quality and national visibility. These candidates bring strong academic, research and administrative experience, and we appreciate their interest in this vitally important role.”

The finalists will be invited to participate in a series of campus forums on April 13, 16 and 17 to allow faculty, staff, students and the community to meet them and provide input to the search process.

The search for the University’s next president is conducted with two committees that meet jointly and in accordance with Nevada’s open meeting law. The Presidential Search Committee includes six members of the NSHE Board of Regents. The Institutional Advisory Committee includes 11 representatives of the community and 12 representatives of University of Nevada, Reno faculty, staff and students. The President Search Committee engaged the services of William Funk, president of R. William Funk & Associates, as the consultant for the search process. The desired characteristics of the next president are summarized in the University of Nevada, Reno Presidential Prospectus, prepared after a series of open meetings with campus and external constituents and approved by the two committees.

The two committees will meet April 5 in the Joe Crowley Student Union Ballroom, starting at 1 p.m., to discuss the finalists and review their resumes. It is planned that the committees will then reconvene at 9 a.m., April 18 in Lawlor Event Center to hear from the search consultant regarding the forums and conduct interviews with the finalists. At that meeting, the Presidential Search Committee may potentially select a candidate to recommend to the full NSHE Board of Regents for consideration.

The University of Nevada, Reno president reports to the chancellor of the NSHE, who holds an ex-officio, nonvoting membership on both committees.

For more information about the presidential search, visit http://www.unr.edu/president-search.