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.
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.’
“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.