As promised, I’m doing a little bit of blogging about myself this week. I was part of a group that did a presentation about social media during our lecture.

How did we get there, you may ask?

Our group was a somewhat critical of a previous lecture on Twitter, posting it in the #J2150 hashtag (oops), so we were asked to do a lecture to the class about social media. We planned it out, but the lecture kind of flopped. We had numerous technical issues, and the class was not as engaged as we had hoped. We used the hashtag for our lecture and saw criticism first-hand. It did not personally affect me, as I saw it coming after the technical snafus. I read the negative tweets in front class, too. One of the key elements of social media is honesty. People do not like to have their criticism glossed over and ignored, so I felt it was important to acknowledge it. Pretending something does not exist does not make it go away, as people behind social media (and other PR) disasters learned the hard way.

So, we learned our lesson there. You never know who watches what you post. As a journalist, you can only hope you have a wide audience; you just have to watch what you share with them.

But social media is a good thing for journalists, in my opinion. We get to interact with our audience and get stories and feedback that we may not have recieved in the pre-social media age. I like that. It is important for journalists to be seen as people (even though we aren’t), and as people, we make mistakes.

Social media makes it easy to broadcast a message you may regret to the world. So, with that in mind, I have been keeping a closer eye on what I, personally, post on social media. Part of my problem with social media (and life in general) is that I tend to be vocal when I see something that could use improvement. But I do not always express my thoughts in the most appropriate manner. I think this is what sunk me that Monday. I tend to be a little more biting and catty when I’m not happy (and when I see things that need improvement, I am usually not happy — it’s my impatience showing). Unfortunately, sometimes anger is a catalyst that makes us act irrationally and do things that we regret. And therein lies my problem.

I am working on channeling that into more constructive criticism and holding my “tongue” until I can cool down. After all, as a journalist, you have to be careful in how you express any opinion. So I need to express whatever opinions I may express in a constructive, respectful manner. It probably will not be easy. I foresee many bumps in the road. But I am trying, and I know now to watch myself. I try to think about what I am posting, reading every word for its context *before* I post it. I cannot afford to make a mistake in real life.

I guess that is a plus of the J-School, though. I am yet another young journalist taking his bumps and learning from his mistakes here before he goes out into the real world.

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In Monday’s lecture, we were treated to a video about writing for video from longtime KOMU anchor Sarah Hill, who left the station fairly recently. She joined Veterans United Home Loans in August to “focus on telling stories of veterans across the country and expanding her role in social media.”

So it made sense that one of her stories was about veterans. She also featured stories about a “Shirley club” and a blind man who, I believe, made Christmas decorations every year. Nothing hard-hitting or anything, but important stories to be told nonetheless. Some might call it “fluff,” but in my opinion, there is always room for softer stories in news. It may not be the most important news (and importance is a pure judgement call) of the day, but it can make a big impact on the lives of an audience. 

I thought the video and her tips were interesting; I always liked her work on KOMU. I think her emphasis on writing to video is important. A video storyteller won’t tell stories effectively if he or she writes his or her script ahead of time and does not modify it to suit the video it accompanies. To me, it seems just plain stupid to do that. Journalists, after all, are storytellers, not story creators. So why try to create a story ahead of time? 

I feel that the role of a journalist in video is always secondary. That does not mean that what we do is not crucial to the storytelling process, it is. It just means we should, first and foremost, allow the subject(s) of our pieces to tell their stories. We, as journalists, fill in the gaps and emphasize and summarize the most important parts of a story. By doing that, we make the stories cohesive.

Sarah Hill is big on social media. She launched U_News on KOMU, a 4PM newscast that incorporated Google Plus hangouts to bring viewers into the stories along with Facebook and Twitter integration. It did not seem to work out for KOMU (U_News no longer exists), however, it was a revolutionary idea at the time. I like what she did to make the news more interactive, and I like the fact that journalists are able to interact more with our audience. 

This is an important segue to my next blog, which will be about social media. How do I know the topic of the next lecture  before I even attend it? Well, barring a change in plans, I, along with five of my colleagues, will be lecturing to class on Monday about social media and how it applies to journalists. Yes, my friends, the tables have turned. Let’s hope I don’t screw it up. 

In Monday’s J2150 lecture, two guest speakers (three, if you count the very brief appearance from the professor who works with The Missourian) came in to discuss sequences within the J-School. The first was Kent Collins, from the Radio/TV sequence. I enjoyed his presentation a lot. I recently switched my interest area from Convergence to Radio/TV, so I suppose that enjoyment comes naturally for me. The second was Tom Swanson, from the Strategic Communications track. Honestly, I did not have much interest in his lecture. With that in mind, I will focus on Collins’ presentation and how it applies to me rather than Swanson’s. 

Collins showed the class a very funny Bob Dotson “Today” story from 1980’s about the J-School (which, unfortunately, I could not find on YouTube), and many of the issues that J-Schoolers faced then still ring true today (mainly a sometimes unresponsive public). But one thing that has changed greatly since then is the technology. I laughed (on the inside) when I saw KOMU reporters using ancient video cameras and videotape, along with Missourian reporters using typewriters. Those days are long over, and I am grateful for that. I simply could not imagine using that kind of old-fashioned technology to cover stories. Of course, some J-Schooler will probably say the same thing about our technology 30 years from now. 

Collins also showed a much more recent (but still somewhat dated) behind the scenes piece from KOMU that was interesting as well. I liked what he had to say about the program and he was extremely entertaining throughout. Even putting my biases aside, he was my favorite guest speaker in lecture by far. 

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, I have always liked both television and print journalism. I like and dislike aspects of each interest area. However, I decided to go with Radio/TV because I feel like it offers me a better chance to personalize my work. There is something so rewarding about seeing something that is yours shown to an audience. Now, the same can be true for print, but it is a different feeling. 

Also, through my video project, I remembered how much I like editing video, stressful as it may be, and seeing it come together into a story. I look forward to learning a lot more about video storytelling in the coming years, because I know I have a lot to learn. I am up for the challenge. 

Stay tuned for part two of my “Blogging About Lecture” series, which will likely appear around the same time next Saturday night. Procrastination is an art form, isn’t it?

Coming from a fairly irreligious, but Protestant family, the Pope was never a particularly prominent figure in my life. Sure, he was “there”, wearing the funny hat, riding in the bulletproof car. But he was nothing more to me or my family than a guy who was on the news a lot. So until John Paul II died, I never really understood why the Pope was so important.

(Photo credit: Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

Granted, the Pope is still not of personal importance to me. But I understand now why popes are so influential: they lead the world’s largest religious sect and is Europe’s last absolute monarch as head of the Vatican City state. The Roman Catholic Church is extremely powerful in many emerging nations (particularly in Latin America). So the Pope, as the autocratic head of this organization, wields enormous power.

However, with power comes responsibility. When Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope in hundreds of years to resign voluntarily, I think it raised a lot of questions. Is “Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI running away from the child sex abuse scandal that plagues the church? There are rumors to that effect.

I think the rumors are credible. Denying their possibility, if not their likelihood, requires a lot of cognitive dissonance. I would think that most Catholics do not.

I am glad to see the media refuse to treat the Pope with kid gloves and accept him at his word. While some Catholics, like the ultraconservative and unfailingly devout pundit Bill Donohue certainly do not like it, it would show journalistic ignorance to not question the current Pope’s motivations and hold him accountable. After all, we should treat any other powerful person in the same way.

I think our lack of total and complete deference to the Pope and the church itself reflects our changing attitudes towards religion, and it is a good thing. We should not fear the Bill Donohues of the world, who exist in a permanent state of umbrage. Religion and religious organizations should not get a free pass just because Western societies deem it a fundamental freedom.

On Wednesday night, I listened to “Radio Times” on the “NPR Now” satellite station. Ever since I got my car last summer, I have found myself listening to NPR pretty religiously (it’s either that or “1st Wave” — which plays music from my favorite 80’s British synth bands). I find most of their programs to be informative and I think they are a must-listen for anyone who is interested in current events (i.e. a journalist). 

On that night’s show, they had a very eye-opening discussion about hunger in America.

Ironically, I listened to it as I drove back to campus from the nearby grocery store, HyVee. The part that I listened to was about “food deserts” — which stem from the lack of fresh food options in poor communities, both urban and rural. One mother talked of long drives to a grocery store just to buy vegetables, which often used up a significant portion of her food stamp allocation.

I liked this piece because it brought me back to my Cross-Cultural Journalism class (J2000). They key elements of excellent storytelling are context, complexity, and voices, and this piece had all three. The latter, to me, was key: the participants in the documentary the program discussed were the ones sharing their experiences on-air. The audience heard first-hand, in-depth experiences of poverty in America. 

I think it brings up something with discussing: Are we portraying poverty accurately in the media? So often, I hear politicians and pundits berating food stamp users for buying junk food instead of healthy options. But as the NPR discussion showed, some food stamp users have no choice but to buy cheap “junk food.”

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is sensationalism. The public hears sensationalistic stories about people “cheating the system” (for example, the lottery winner who continued to use food stamps) and uses them to reinforce their negative stereotypes about people on public assistance. In my opinion, this is unfair to people who play by the rules, and creates a perception of widespread fraud, putting poor people under the microscope and making them out to be “suspects.”  So we need to think about telling the stories of those who do play by the rules, and share their challenges and frustrations with the system. I am not saying that fraud does not happen within the system, or that it is not newsworthy when it does, but it is our job as journalists to give our audience the whole picture of a subject, not just create public outrage when things go wrong. 

So, instead of quoting an economist when the topic of food stamps or welfare is brought up, why don’t we tell the stories of people who experience poverty every day, like the NPR piece did? We would be doing our jobs better, and people would get a clearer picture of poverty. 

Wikipedia. It is a website reviled by high school English teachers and the Encyclopædia Britannica for its sometimes inaccurate information and its ability for anyone to insert such information into the public’s mind. (Or, in the latter’s case, putting a traditional gatekeeper of reference material on its deathbed.) 

After all, Wikipedia is the sixth most viewed website in the world according to the internet information provider Alexa. Such a wide audience allows misinformation, especially about popular subjects, to spread like wildfire.  

But I am not here to rehash the many controversies over the sometimes libelous errors that make their way onto the website. Instead, I am here to tell you that Wikipedia is a good place to start looking for information if you are a journalist.  

I know. You are probably thinking: “Chris. This goes against everything journalists are supposed to believe in.” But hear me out.

Where else can you find information about Harry S. Truman, Hurricane Iniki, or the history of executions by elephant all under one roof? 

You can Google each of these subjects, but you are likely to find information that is either disparate or redundant on the myriad results you get. Each website is likely to be organized differently, and its content can range from academic and obscure to inadequate; leaving you, the reader, wanting more.

This is where Wikipedia strikes a good balance. In most of its major articles, content is written in easy-to-understand English, with a uniform format, along with images that are relevant to the subject at hand. 

But the most important thing is this: Wikipedia is not a source. It is instead a starting point. The beauty of a quality Wikipedia article is if it is properly sourced (and by definition, a quality article would be), you can easily check the information out for yourself. For example:

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See those tiny little “[1]”‘s and “[2]”‘s after the end of key facts? Those are references. Click on them and you will be taken down here: 

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References take you to those sites you could have found of Google, or give you the names of books that you can check out from the library or, if you are lucky, find online. Those are the sources that journalists should cite. Wikipedia is a site that cultivates the best sources for you and summarizes them. 

A journalist can use Wikipedia to gain a better understanding of a topic that they may be unfamiliar with or to just learn about the world. I have learned or gained a better understanding of many things I would not have otherwise learned in a classroom or may have even thought I was interested in simply by aimlessly browsing Wikipedia (I have no life). So, by all means, use Wikipedia. But do not end your search for facts there. Go further. 

One cannot help but notice their eye-catching and outrageous headlines after going on a wallet-emptying shopping binge at your favorite grocery store. They’re “Globe” magazine, a supermarket tabloid founded in 1954. 

Here’s a sample of some of their excellent journalism, a headline from 2010 claiming that former president Bill Clinton has “six months to live”:

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Obviously, the former President is alive and well. I have to ask: how does this “news” magazine make a profit? Do people actually believe the crazy headlines? Or do they read it for the pure entertainment and shock value, much like one would readThe Onion,” but with no pretense of satire? 

One thing I find humorous is how formulaic their headlines are. More often than not, a political figure or celebrity “dying.” Here’s a recent “Globe” cover which proclaims that Queen Elizabeth II is “dying” and about to make her grandson, Prince William, King. 
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Or this cover, claiming that a “dying” Bill Clinton (apparently he’s been dying for a few years now), was “humiliated” by his wife, the former Secretary of State, “dirty dancing” on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia:

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I suppose that death is the one constant in the world, and it would be a shame if there were not someone out there, making a profit over our fear of the inevitable, right? Is that not the American Way?

And on the topic of the American Way, the thing I think is most interesting about this hilariously bad publication is how it owes its existence to our very broadly written and interpreted First Amendment. In other countries (in Europe, for example), the magazine’s claims could certainly be considered libelous, and I doubt the magazine could get away with having the same types of outlandish headlines. So, I suppose, if anything, seeing this tabloid is an unavoidable reminder of the First Amendment: even drivel is protected by it, so long as it is about a prominent figure, of course.  

But is that a good thing? I think so. Censoring even the most ridiculous publications such as “Globe” would lead to a chilling effect that would extend to legitimate news operations. After all, some outrageous-sounding headlines about public figures turn out to be true (whether they are important is another topic entirely), and fears of endless litigation should not prevent more respectable news outlets from getting a story out to the public. 

Anyway, I hope to become famous enough one day to be able to be seen “dying” next to an impulse-buy pack of Life Savers at the checkout aisle. Not only will it mean I have arrived in the world, my impending “death” will mean I have many more years left ahead of me. 

I think if we applied “Globe”‘s standards of “dying” to the world, each and every one of us has been dying since the minute we were born. I guess it is never too early to get working on a will.