Never incite a Twitter mob, and other lessons from this week

Have you been blogging? I haven’t. Blogging requires a little time for reflection, and I haven’t had any free brain space for anything but the immediate demands of breaking news for a while. Yesterday, I hit the road because driving can be therapy, especially if you have an outlet mall as a destination (yes, I believe in the occasional use of retail therapy, but retail [verb] responsibly).

Now, I’m resting and reflecting. But so much has happened in the past week that trying to organize my thoughts is still difficult. So let me just list them here, not in order of importance but as they come to mind:

  1. Journalism is exhausting, and you have to take the measure of your own exhaustion deliberately and consciously or you might find yourself standing in the middle of a room with a sob caught in your throat for what seems like no apparent reason. You know there’s a reason, you just don’t know which one it is. Is it sadness over all the destruction in Beirut and Paris, the painful shattering of illusions in Columbia, Mo., or the inevitable opportunism of bigots at times like these? Probably all of the above.
  2. Journalism is exhilarating because we have the honor and privilege of telling people’s stories and a front row on history — but also the responsibility of being accurate and fair and, well, see no. 1 above.
  3. Be thou always measured on Twitter, even if you’re really pissed off. Especially if you’re really pissed off. When I saw the video from Monday’s scrum between journalists and supporters of the protesters on Carnahan Quad, the Mama Bear was awakened — not just for this single instance of belligerence but for every time one of my students has been treated unfairly in the act of reporting. We need a thick skin in journalism. But we don’t need to tolerate bullying and the cynical derision of strangers whose only justification for being ugly toward us is that we are members of “The Media.” And you know what that means. What I learned is that calling shame on the faculty member and staffer who were two of the key players in that unpleasant scene on the quad was way too effective. I didn’t know I would rouse the wrath of the masses or play an unwitting role in discrediting the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement. That was an unintended effect, one that I wish I’d played no part in — though I don’t regret for a second standing up for the First Amendment. Twitter is powerful, for better or worse.
  4. We all must play an active role every day in improving media literacy. If people don’t understand what we do or how we do it, it isn’t just because they’re watching too much TV and not reading enough (though I think that’s part of it). It’s also because we need to work harder to explain the purpose of our reporting every time. And saying “I’m working on a story about…” isn’t enough – that merely begs the question of purpose. The question is, Why? Why are you working on that story? What is your purpose? To help people understand something? To inspire? To illustrate a problem people are struggling with in our community? You must think about it to articulate it, and that’s good for the reporting. But don’t stop there. Keep explaining how the process works all along the way, and sell it with conviction. For example: “We accuracy check because we want to be right because anything less would be unfair to you and our readers.”
  5. Right is good, well-explained is better. (The better we do at no. 4, the more easily this will come to all of us.) If you’re doing a good job of explaining your purpose, you’re not just citing your right under the First Amendment. You’re also explaining that yours is a just cause as well — that you are bearing witness to history in the making. That you are also a member of the community and care deeply that people understand what’s happening. Tim Tai did a pretty good job of that last week when he encountered not just strong resistance but actual aggression on Carnahan Quad. He stayed way cooler than I would have, and I commend him for that. It might not have helped at all under those hostile conditions, but what if Tim had stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tim Tai, I’m a student in the journalism school and I’m covering this for ESPN (big smile) and I wonder if you and I could just talk human-to-human for a second about what I’m doing here.” It’s the sales job of reporting. I say this all the time. And you shouldn’t have to fake it. If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing out there (let me emphasize, Tim knew exactly what he was doing out there), you might be the wrong person for the job. That doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes feel ambivalent or conflicted. It does mean that you sometimes need to set aside those feelings to do the job that journalists do, and that most basic job is bearing witness. Start there. It’s a strong foundation.
  6. It’s okay to have lots and lots of feelings. You’re a human being, not a robot. Your campus was pretty crazy last week. Find someone to talk to. Close the door, sit down and let it pour out in all of its raw, unshaped, human glory. If you don’t have your own safe space, create one. If you don’t know what safe space is (or have spoken derisively about it, not knowing what it is), please read this excellent piece by Roxane Gay for the New York Times. She nails it.
  7. Don’t repeat or retweet rumors. And tell your friends the same. This is another aspect of that media literacy challenge (no. 4): Be careful what you say aloud, even, because you’re a journalist and you play a special role in helping people separate fact from rumor. Sometimes, rumor becomes fact. But until you know, keep it on the down low. (And now you can laugh at me for using really old slang. At least it rhymes.)
  8. Breaking news isn’t for everyone. But. If you didn’t feel compelled to be in the newsroom this week, it doesn’t mean there’s no place for you in journalism. It might mean you’re not going to be a reporter, ever. But if you didn’t ask once how you could help, you might ask yourself why (there might be some value in an honest inner dialogue in that). It also means that you’re the perfect person to pitch in this week and work hard in the next phase of reporting because the people who only left the newsroom last week to sleep are in need of a break. Help give them one. Thank you.
  9. Find out who sent all that food and say thank you any way you can. Some faculty and alumni were responsible for keeping us all fed and full of coffee last week. That felt like love, to me. When someone sends you love, it’s just wrong to ignore it.
  10. Think positive. Mizzou has some challenging months ahead, and I’m no Pollyanna (far from it), but as we find ourselves in this time of recovery, let’s find the stories of resilience. Who were the faculty, staffers and community members who helped guide and inspire and feed and shelter the students in the tent city? Who made people laugh? What does it mean for the University of Missouri to now have a national reputation as a place with active student movements? Let’s not stop reporting the tough stuff. But let’s not just focus on the negative because that’s unlikely to produce an accurate picture of what’s really happening right now.

And let me know what you think. Comment on this post, or link to your own blog posts.

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9 Responses to Never incite a Twitter mob, and other lessons from this week

  1. This post is everything I needed now. I am so happy I still get these blog post notifications. Your first point is so real to how I feel. Thank you for continuing to be super open and genuine with teachable moments.

  2. Elaine says:

    You acted quickly and decisively. Thought about becoming an administrator? It seems J School Dean knows what to say, how best to say it, and he also did it a timely fashion.

  3. reedkath says:

    I also want to say that our new dean did a great job.

  4. JournoBlogger says:

    Very well written. These are good points for all journalists to remember.

  5. travtrails says:

    Social media has snapped human to human link. I was a newspaper reporter in the 70’s in my home country, India, and know what it is to get carried away by emotions of the ‘moment’. Sad to say this is what is happening in India at present, accusations and counter accusations fuelled by trolls in whatever hand they can get hold on.

  6. Mary Job says:

    Great post. Social Media Illiteracy is really mind boggling. I should think it’s just plain common sense but apparently it’s not. Here’s a link to my blog, do check it out. cheerio.

  7. As a student of media studies, I find this post really relevant and helpful. I don’t know much of what to expect in the field of journalism so thank you for enlightening me 🙂

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