How journalism has changed and what that means for students

There are, today, jobs for journalists with engagement in their title. This is not a future thing professors should consider, but rather a present need.

Descriptions for these jobs mention using web and social media analytics to gain insights about audiences in order to serve those audiences and to demonstrate reach to advertisers.

There are multiple pressures on news organizations and their employees. Advertisers expect proof of effectiveness. Continually evolving search engine algorithms require strategy to create news that will surface. Social media audiences demand attention.

This means our journalism grads need more skills. They must

  • Tell accurate stories quickly and ethically
  • Across multiple media
  • In a way friendly to both humans and robots
  • While continually using insights from audience data to optimize.

That’s a big deal, but there’s one bright spot. I’ve been telling my students for a while now that professional journalists have but two unique selling propositions now: The ethical standards of the field and the ability to find and interpret primary sources.
Those primary sources increasingly involve understanding, manipulating and using data to see what is really going on. The skills to do that are quite similar to the skills to find and use audience insights.

So teaching data skills won’t just make students more employable, it will make them better storytellers, as they can understand information first-hand. And as much as some of our students are math and code phobic, they CAN learn this.


Why that Instagram poll might not tell you anything

One of the chapters in my Detecting Deception book is on understanding polls and surveys. It’s a key skill for both journalists and for audiences (that’s you) who consume results from polls.

Polls get clicks and, as such, are a way for news organizations to create stories where there may not be anything actually important to report. First rule for media: don’t do that! If you want to spend time and money, report on issues, not races.

Anyway, as a reader, if you ARE going to share poll results, there’s a few things to understand. First, know something about the qualifications of the person taking the poll.

If people volunteer (like a social media poll), it’s not a sample and only represents the opinions of people who happened to answer the poll.

How also matters. If you poll people by landline telephones, you are only getting opinions of people who have landlines and are at home when you call. Think about how that might affect who answers!

If you poll with social media, you are only getting answers from people who use of that platform (that the algorithm decided want to see your poll). Again, pretty worthless.

Now that we are in political season, the landscape is full of shady push polls. These look like they are asking your opinion, but really are priming you to think certain ways about issues. Sometimes they ask for money or contact info, too. That’s a clear sign that the results of that poll can’t be trusted.

If you get called and asked to participate in a poll, you should always ask “who is paying for this?” right to the person on the phone. Reputable pollsters will tell you.

It may be useful to check this rating of various polling agencies. You can see that Rasmussen gets a C- and my university’s gets an A-. There are also ideas of the political leaning of the pollsters.




How to bounce back from disappointment

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A little #ProffieProTip from my life that seems applicable at the moment. In my line of work, you face rejection and disappointment at times. Papers get rejected. Your star student blows an exam. You don’t get a role you wanted.

It hurts, and you’re mad. Sometimes all rolled up into one, especially when it comes from people you like and trust. Sometimes you don’t even know why. I have a technique that helps me deal with this disappointment.

I give myself one day to experience the disappointment. Complain to my friends, enjoy the imposter syndrome all academics feel, question people’s judgement and motivation.

The next day, I have to move on. I might see if there is anything i can salvage from the situation. I might think about what my ultimate goal is and what path is now the best to take to get there now that this road is blocked.

A little distance definitely allows some productive perspective. But I need to resist the temptation to focus on doubt and blame, because that doesn’t lead to my goals. #MondayMotivation

I call these moments my chance to practice resilience. You get better with practice.

Seeing it another way – an important skill

Let me share a little bit about perspective-taking.

It’s a subject that comes up in many of my classes – in my freshman seminar as we learn to understand the world around us, in journalism as we understand our sources and in analytics as we understand our audiences.

Perspective-taking is a skill, which means it’s something you can learn, you can practice and you can get better at. It can be hard to do. It requires awareness, intention and effort. Perhaps more than that, it requires belief. Belief that what others think matters.

It DOES matter. Very much. Whether you want to take a hard-line, utilitarian approach or a touchy-feely, humanitarian one, perspective-taking is essential if you want to be able to do anything involving other people.

For utilitarians, Sun-Tzu was right to say “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” If you want to trade or do business with someone or divide land or whatever, you need to know what drives them.

For humanitarians, “Love your enemies,” was good advice. No matter how much someone(s) frustrates you, you will not get far in changing their mind if you don’t understand why their mind is that way.

I’m a professor, and I do love a good, reasoned argument. But, to take someone’s perspective means I need to understand someone’s view as if I were them.

This is the hard part. I can see what they DO. I have to figure out

  1. what they think
  2. why they think that way
  3. what kinds of evidence they value

before I have any hope of changing a mind.

And I have to understand someone’s perspective as they do, not as a deviation from what makes sense to me.

You don’t always get to be both right and smart, but I think perspective-taking gets you pretty close. You don’t have to agree, but it really, really helps to understand.

Leaders try to manipulate news coverage. Here’s what journalists can do about it.

I think a lot of people are discussing and critiquing journalism. Since I’ve been teaching the subject for quite some time now, here’s some things I tell my students about their relationships to public officials.

The first rule of journalism, even in the Society of Professional Journalists
Code of Ethics, is to “seek truth and report it.” Sources of truth don’t always want it shared. Everyone wants to look good, and when people have chosen to do bad things, they don’t want you to expose them.

A side #ProTip for newsmakers: The best way to avoid unfavorable coverage is to not do bad things. It’s not 100%, but it works a lot better than other shenanigans you try.

Ok, so I tell my students that public officials absolutely do try to use the media. Sometimes this is a good thing. If there is going to be a huge amount of traffic or there’s a crisis, the officials will want to work with you to get the word out.

Sometimes is a medium thing. For example, if officials don’t know if a policy will be popular, they might “leak” the fact that it’s happening to the press and wait to see how the public reacts. If it’s bad, they just say the journalist got it wrong.

Basically, in this case, officials are using journalists as a way to not have to have a potentially embarrassing public comment opportunity. By making the media take the blame, they erode confidence in an important public institution.

I still call this a medium thing for two reasons.

1. Government is also an important public institution, and you could argue that confidence in it is also important.

2. Sometimes officials do legitimately bad things.

I tell my students that sometimes people are just shady, and sometimes people are desperate. Remember that people dislike criticism and unfavorable coverage. They’ll try to avoid that by making it hard to do your job.

They’ll provide things you request under the Freedom of Information Act in a legal manner, but in the most annoying way possible. For example, files may be disorganized or in a hard-to-use format. Or they’ll give you a printout of a long digital file.

It’s also pretty well-known how the news cycle works. There’s a smaller audience on weekends, so bad news tends to get released on Fridays or right before holidays. ūüĒ•

They’ll try to time things so you can’t do your job – for example scheduling a Press Conference so close to deadline that you can’t publish it, or dumping a big file without enough time to read it carefully.

I tell my students that they need to be prepared. They need to know how to put difficult data back into a usable form. . They need to ask “Why is this person telling me this and why now?”

The audience wants to know, and journalism will do its best under the circumstances to tell it quickly. But know that the actual best will come later, after the reporters have had time to read everything and put it in proper context.

Fact checking needs some updates

I’ve been teaching future journalists for … a while … and I’ve been thinking about how my approach to teaching fact checking for news has changed.
Some things don’t change. First, I’m quite passionate about it, as I hope my students would tell you. The audience gives you attention and sometimes money for true facts; it is your ethical imperative to provide them.
(If you are too lazy to go every single extra mile to get things right in news, change your major.)
Over the years, I’ve taught stuff like “Verify names in the phone book. Use the white pages.” Techniques change. Of course, you still must always verify every name, or F for you if you spell it wrong.
Call every phone number to verify it. Visit every URL and check every link to download an app.
Quotations have taken on new meaning as almost everyone has a recording device on them, so it will be possible to verify exactly what is said. Always check against a recording, or paraphrase accurately.
Photos have gotten terrifically more complicated. It used to be a quick BS test (are the signs in the right language, is the weather correct, etc.) was sufficient. Now, any photograph¬†where you don’t know the human who took it is suspect.
We have to talk about not only tracking down those humans, but asking verifying questions like “where were you standing?” and “what kind of camera do you have?”
A huge part of news verification is critical thinking. Why does this person have this fact/image/video etc.? Why are they sharing it with me?
The set of tools curated here by¬†Journalist’s Resource
are extremely helpful, and you don’t have to be a journalist¬†to use them.
If you share news and information online, you are still getting time from an audience in return for accuracy. And I hope you will go those extra miles as well.

A few specific tips

Things to check that don’t change: Names, titles, locations, directions, phone numbers, web addresses, math (many journalists are weak in it, so mistakes are common), content of graphics, times, dates.
Definitely DO NOT take the stuff in the panel at the top or side of a Google #search as correct. It’s only as good as its source material, which will vary.

Just because I’m a hypocrite doesn’t mean you aren’t wrong


One way you can detect deception is by looking for an appeal to hypocrisy, which is very prevalent right now.

Here, you are saying that what YOU are doing is ok because what someone ELSE is doing is as bad or worse. It’s common in politics. It often works because the thing the other person is doing is often truly objectionable.

Appealing to hypocrisy is also essentially a distraction that is based on faulty logic. You’re saying “ignore the bad thing I’m doing, because someone else is also doing something bad.”

I teach writing, and when students plagiarize, they get in big time trouble. If I show you that you plagiarize, you might try to argue that “Well, this other student did, too.”

Does someone else cheating mean we now have a new norm, and everyone is ok? Not in my class (or anyone’s that I know). Zeros for all!

Even if you were to find that I MYSELF plagiarized (don’t worry, I didn’t!), that still doesn’t mean YOU should not have consequences.

You’ll see this in politics when officials will say it’s ok to have vindictive legislation because the other party did bad things when they were in control (we see that a lot here in N.C.)

Last I checked, two wrongs still did not add up to a right, so appealing to hypocrisy probably won’t get you out of trouble.