Tweeting Fast, Being Wrong, Regrettable Writing–So Many Teaching Moments

Posted on January 28, 2012

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The classes each quarter we spend on Twitter in my social media and journalism class at Ohio State (Comm 422, News Media Presentation) are among my favorites. It’s a true “ah ha” moment to show them the tricks and tools that will help Twitter work for them, and them work for Twitter.

And it’s a big leap forward in helping them establish their online media brand by creating a good identity, posting quality information and participating in a dialogue with their community at large.

This quarter, it’s also a great time to show them real examples on how to–hopefully–avoid doing really stupid things on Twitter.

The first example comes from our Nittany Lion brothers in the Big Ten, where reports of Joe Paterno‘s death were greatly exaggerated–at least for 18 hours or so.

Onward StateOnward State, the Penn State student news website, reported Paterno’s death at 8:45 p.m., citing sources who cited an email sent to football players. So exciting to have a scoop–nothing like it. Especially when that scoop has legs like this–running across the media landscape and getting picked up by sources from local radio to CBS Sports.

There was only one major problem, of course: Paterno was not yet dead.

But the problems were  just beginning. Site after site picked up the tip from CBS, which had run the “news” without confirmation or even attribution to Onward State. That attribution only came later–when CBS had to apologize and admit it had robbed Paterno–at least in the virtual world–of his last hours of life.

Failing to confirm information before you “publish” is one of the most grievous offenses in journalism, a sin made so much easier to commit in our electronic, social media-fueled world. It is also unforgivable, as the newly unemployed folks from Onward State and CBS found out.

But nearly as grievous is thinking your opinion as a reporter actually means more than the communities you cover, as Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer found out.

Grossi, the respected and accomplished beat writer for the Cleveland Browns, took to his newspaper Twitter account, according to Cleveland.com, and Tweeted in the spirit of colleague-to-colleague humor that he thought Browns owner Randy Lerner was “a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.”

Maybe he is. I don’t know. And I believe Grossi when he says he meant only to send it to one person, not 15,000. But why write it down at all? Pick up the phone. Walk down the hall. But don’t type out and send them over a public blogging platform that which it’s probably best for you that others don’t read.

Grossi was reassigned, not fired. And Cleveland.com reports that if he had been a columnist, paid for his opinion, this would have been “cringe” worthy, but still the opinion for which he would be paid to give. Grossi defended his action by saying he was told to “tweet his beat,” and “be provocative,” and implies this fell within that parameter.

It was provocative all right, but could you imagine a journalist world where you could write that in print and your editors would think it a good angle on your post-season coverage?

The mechanism for delivering news has changed–we are better, stronger, faster than ever before. But in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. Twitter has provided the forum  for us to take our God-given ability to say stupid things at the wrong time, or spread rumors we have not substantiated, and now make asses of ourselves in print. And too many of us are taking advantage of this opportunity.

Yes, talking about Twitter is one of my favorite class subjects. And the first thing I plan to teach them is, for goodness sakes, stop and think before you press “Tweet.”

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