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Advice from experts: Reinventing the newsroom social media team

What WGBH’s social media director Tory Starr calls “deciphering the intersection of social media and journalism” is a complex task. Reinventing a decade-old process in a culture not necessarily known for embracing change and creativity won’t be easy.

Building trust and fighting misinformation will be even harder. There’s something called Brandolini’s Law — also known as the “Bullshit Asymmetry Principle” —  proposing that “the amount of energy needed to refute misinformation is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

But by working smarter, in a way designed for 2020, social media teams in newsrooms can make the truth louder — and consequently increase trust, decrease misinformation, and establish the role of media in a democracy more strongly than any other time in history.

Here are recommendations and best practices from practitioners, experts and researchers.

Fighting misinformation: Learn, teach and reach

Battling misinformation should be done by newsrooms in a cohesive manner, and the first step is learning how to spot and debunk it. Then, that learning should be shared with the newsroom, followed by a strategy to reach readers with correct information.

“If social media can be deployed to spread disinformation and sanitize hate, it can also be deployed to spread accurate facts and bolster progressive voices for equality and freedom,” Vox’s Aja Romano says.

Considering that two-thirds of Americans get news from social media, someone must tackle misinformation that thrives on those platforms. No one is better situated to do that than professional journalists who work with social media every day.

Preparing for that role likely requires a shift in duties, with a new focus on learning, teaching and reaching audiences — and maybe even a little psychology. Here’s what we mean:

A University of Washington study last year found that tweeting from verified journalism accounts — accounts given a blue checkmark after the user’s identity has been verified by Twitter — can help stop the proliferation of false information on Twitter. If social media journalists don’t bother to respond to misinformation “you’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it,” said Kate Starbird, one of the study’s authors.

University of Wisconsin researcher Lucas Graves talks about a colleague who says people “do not carry beliefs around in their pockets like spare change.” Instead, they learn and develop opinions from exposure to information on social media and elsewhere. That makes it all the more imperative for news professionals to monitor that information for accuracy, and act when it’s inaccurate.

If social media can be deployed to spread disinformation and sanitize hate, it can also be deployed to spread accurate facts and bolster progressive voices for equality and freedom.

Chris Vargo, a University of Colorado professor who researches social media and misinformation, says the few efforts by newsrooms to fight misinformation “come from a good place” but they’re sparse, lack strategy, and are often too late.  “Minutes are important,” says Vargo. “Fighting fake news must be preemptive.”

WGBH’s Tory Starr was in Las Vegas during the October 2017 mass shootings, and saw firsthand how misinformation overpowered trusted journalism on social media. “Here’s what citizens need in times of crises,” she says. “They need journalists, versed in social media verification and reporting, helping the masses sort through the mess of information. They need clear, editorial voices on every platform that they can trust.”

This era of misinformation and declining trust is a challenging issue for all publishers. There may not be one simple solution. But there are some suggestions that involve social platforms that are worth pursuing; here are some of them.  (Tell us about methods you’ve tried and we’ll share in a follow-up blog post.)

Learn and teach. Verification — a key element of journalism — means keeping pace with the purveyors of misinformation. Those who work in social media in newsrooms should learn more about bots, fake accounts and how to spot them; how to block or report them; how to identify falsified photos, audio and video; and other basics of verification.

Develop strategies to correct misinformation, and build them into the day-to-day workflow.  For example, in the Skagit newsroom, reporters find that posting from their own accounts can be more effective than posting from the official newspaper account. “People seem to be less likely to continue to pick fights with someone who has a name and a face,” says reporter Kera Wanielista.

Here are some tips from other experts including Judith Donath, a Harvard University professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, who has written on effective ways to respond to misinformation.

  • State the truth rather than repeat the falsehood.
  • Use visuals to attract attention to your falsehood-fighting social media posts.
  • Fight memes with memes: Create your own shareable fact-based memes, to counteract the false ones found on social media.
  • Should you call a lie a lie? Have a conversation in your newsroom and be consistent.
  • When responding to those who spread misinformation on social media, attack the misinformation, not the people.
  • Focus on a positive message if you can find one, and recognize that people’s emotions play a part in what they believe (or don’t believe).
  • Take refresher courses like this one on how to tell a good poll from a bad poll.

Reach the influencers, then engage and follow. People tend to believe fake news and perpetuate misinformation in groups. So what’s the most efficient way to get factual information to fact-resistant communities that hold common misperceptions? Get information to the group’s leaders or “influencers” — the prolific posters and the users who are retweeted most often. Reaching into what former Harvard Business School professor Douglas Holt calls “amplified subcultures” is typically a marketing and branding effort, but the idea applies to online communities of all types.

Data supports this approach. When someone posts false information on Twitter, they are more than twice as likely to believe someone’s attempt to correct them if that person is a “mutual follower”  — someone they follow who also follows them — compared with someone they don’t “know” on Twitter, according to a Cornell University study.

What’s involved in finding influencers?  Here’s an overview:

  • In a small community, finding influencers on Facebook might be as simple as finding the most active, popular groups or pages about the topic you’re covering. Here’s an example from a community in New York.

  • With a little more time and effort, you can use search functions in Twitter or LinkedIn to find influential people on certain topics. This 2017 article from the Sprout Blog has more detail on how those searches work.

  • A deeper dive into influencers will require more effort and possibly tools and training. This Forbes article suggests some free tools to help simplify a more intense search throughout platforms.

  • For newsrooms with more resources and a talented technologist — or perhaps a partnership with a university —  “network mapping” can result in valuable information. A Boston University professor explains how he found Twitter influencers during the Ferguson riots and why influencers are valuable to news organizations: “These users are the ones that can share and spread messages through a network in a highly efficient manner – and if properly engaged with by journalists, they can not only help to find new angles on stories but also help to popularize stories that are published,” says Jacob Groshek.

Build trust. How can social teams use trust to build engagement and battle misinformation?

Says Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein: “A growing body of work…suggests that people are far more willing to believe bad news if it comes from people they trust, or from people who seem like them.”

And people who are consumers of “fake news” are “suspicious of mainstream media,” says Harvard’s Judith Donath.

A large body of work now is focused on building media trust through transparency, and social media teams are important part of this. The Trust Project at University at Santa Clara and its Indicators of Trust, the work of Joy Mayer and the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Trusting News Project, the University of Texas-Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and other such efforts all demonstrate how publishers can build bridges to audiences by showing their work, explaining their journalistic process, and sharing more about their reporters and policies.

A growing body of work … suggests that people are far more willing to believe bad news if it comes from people they trust, or from people who seem like them.

ProPublica’s managing editor Robin Fields says both transparency and data have helped increase its trust level among the nonprofit investigative news organization and its readers, many of whom began as readers of partner news organizations that work with ProPublica. “I think between that and our tendency to relentlessly show our work, we’ve tended to not get a huge amount of criticism,” she said.

Transparency includes being honest about mistakes. High-profile social media errors and typos have caused newsrooms some pain, particularly considering a current tendency among some audiences to label media mistakes as “fake news.”

Admitting you’re human is a good first step. “Mistakes happen. I get that. But it’s how we respond to the mistake and how quickly we respond and how sincerely we respond” that can help repair trust on social media, says Loyola University-Chicago communications school dean Don Heider. Develop a corrections strategy and publish it prominently, suggests Tory Starr.

Training the social media teams of tomorrow

Social media teams need updated and ongoing training to ensure they have the latest tools and knowledge to tackle misinformation and other emerging challenges as we head into 2018 and beyond.

Our survey indicated a strong desire among social media teams not only for more top-notch training on best practices in social media, but a concern the training they do get — in many cases “DIY training” as one respondent described it — was inadequate.

What should the newsroom’s social media team know to be effective in today’s social media environment?

First of all, says social media veteran Elyse Siegel, anyone working on a social media team “needs to have the skills of the finest reporter” in the newsroom.

A digital news editor who’s worked in social media for two years in a midwestern newsroom agreed, lamenting her lack of preparation for the 2016 election coverage and the current political climate.

“Social media is so all-encompassing,” she said. “Geography, politics, government, public affairs. …I didn’t know where Benghazi was when I got here.”

She also wants more knowledge about  coding, apps, audio production and other technology — topics she didn’t study as a graduate or undergraduate student.

Other survey respondents said their teams needed skills and practice in these areas:

  • Reaching audiences more effectively
  • Understanding metrics
  • Video editing
  • Keeping up with new tools that could make their work more effective and efficient
  • Managing Facebook and Twitter more efficiently and learning about other platforms

Jeff Elder, a veteran social media professional who now works at McAfee, says a passing knowledge of how platforms work isn’t enough. “Twitter is Spanish; Facebook is French; LinkedIn is German; Instagram is Italian,” he says. “If someone has not practiced the language, throwing them up there and expecting them to sound like a native is not just risky. It’s offensive to fluent speakers.”

When it comes to fighting creators of “fake news,” it’s us vs. them, so journalists need to be smarter than “them.”  But specific training in how to identify and debunk misinformation is rare in newsrooms. Too many journalists are still fooled by fake stories and deception.

The list of training needs, particularly for learning to reach audiences and managing the misinformation ecosystem, is ever-changing. And that makes it even more daunting for newsrooms struggling with budgets and staff cuts.

But the good news is that journalists can learn from each other, and those who work in social media can be especially generous with their time. Here are just a few ideas:

  • A number of Facebook groups have been created to offer support to newsrooms and academic programs.
  • The American Press Institute’s Changemaker Network is working to organize peer-to-peer training on a variety of issues.
  • Gather offers resources and video “lightning chats” to discuss better ways to bring newsrooms and communities together.
  • Yusuf Omar at CNN advocates pairing experienced journalists with “digital natives” and creating a process for them to learn from each other. “Seasoned journalists are more relevant than ever,” he said. “Their skill sets have never been more needed. WGBH’s Tory Starr agrees. “There still aren’t a lot of people who have journalism and social media in their backgrounds.”
  • Rubina Fillion recalls going through “digital boot camp” — required for the entire staff — when she worked at the Wall Street Journal. “Every newsroom should do this,”  she thought at the time. “And every newsroom still needs to do it.”

Hiring the social media teams of tomorrow

Recruit top candidates for social media jobs in your newsroom and require the same high standards you’d require in your best reporting positions.

Two important ideas were repeated often in our interviews with social media teams and experts: (1) Elevate social media positions beyond “entry-level” to attract experienced journalists who can better tackle today’s complex issues. (2) Seek out expert advice when hiring for skills that may be out of your comfort level.

Veteran social media editor Jeff Elder says under-qualified people are often hired when the “people who are hiring are just out of their element. He recalled working in a newsroom where “there were people who were hiring [for social media positions] and making decisions but they didn’t understand it themselves.”

A recent job description for a social media position

Experts in those skills could come from somewhere in your own company, even in departments outside the newsroom. Says Yusuf Omar: “I would look for the digital natives in the organization and get them into the decision-making meetings.”

Attracting experienced journalists is the next step. A smart way to combine journalism and social media skills is to list your job opening as a “social media content producer.”

At Forbes, where strategy has morphed from “digital first’ to “social first,” that’s the preferred job title.

I would look for the digital natives in the organization and get them into the decision-making meetings.

“Social media content producer is the new social media editor,” says Shauna Gleason, Forbes’ director of social media. Team members create unique content specifically for various platforms, and work with Forbes reporters to do the same.

Yusuf Omar advocates creative thinking during the recruiting process.

“I would find social influencers, people who are YouTube stars, people who have large followings on Snapchat, …good EPs [executive producers] who have worked in television,” he recommends.

Carrie Brown, director of social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, warns hiring managers against the assumption that “every digital native is a social media expert.” In fact, she’s noticed a trend: Many college students and young graduates aren’t even using social media much, except for limited private channels.

“It’s a fear thing,” she says — fear that their social activity will be scrutinized by potential employers. Inactivity on regular social platforms keeps them from understanding its use (and abuse) as a mass medium.

Tory Starr at WGBH in Boston makes sure she’s in touch with the best journalism training in the country. The Annenberg School of Journalism’s JEDI program and CUNY’s master’s program in social journalism are two reliable sources of unusually talented and experienced graduates, she says.

Programs like these, she says, are filling the qualifications gap where applicants have social media backgrounds or traditional reporting backgrounds, but not both.

The JEDI program at USC-Annenberg is a potential source for well-trained social media journalists.

For this report, we asked veteran social media editor Scott Kleinberg to create the “ultimate social media job posting”— the perfect combination of skills to deal with the newsroom of 2020. Click on the image below to see what he proposes:

Making social media a critical part of accountability journalism

A woman who’s worked in social media for three large East Coast newsrooms still hears her job described with phrases like these: “the social candy team” or “web monkeys.”

And the attitude still exists in some corners of some newsrooms, she said, that the “social media team is there to promote my story, not do journalism…that we’re the second-class citizens of the newsroom, not real journalists.”

Frustration with a seeming entrenchment in newspaper culture also is evident. Said one social media manager about a recent newsroom meeting: “We wasted 45 minutes talking about what part of the paper the story will go in. I could think of a lot better ways to fill that time.”

At The Boston Globe, a crisis was a learning moment for social media practices, says Jason Tuohey, deputy managing editor for audience engagement. In 2013, they deployed social media like they never had before — to cover the Boston Marathon bombings.

Using social media during breaking news broke some cultural barriers, and a current newsroom “reinvention” is working to merge social and news efforts more deeply. A former reporter was hired as an analytics editor. An audience engagement team was launched, along with a “real-time editor” who selects the five best stories of the day to promote. Another editor focuses on longer projects, and there’s a newsletter editor.

Being available and communicating well and often can be a key to the kind of cultural shift around social teams that publishers need, Tuohey says. “Everyone on this team is hypervisible,” he says. They share data on what subscribers are reading, and how journalism goals and business goals “sync up.”

“We explain how much traffic is pulled in by social media alone,” says Tuohey, and it’s “sometimes as much or more than people going directly to the website.”

At Forbes, the “social first” strategy is clearly communicated, employees say. As part of that strategy, even the organization’s content management system (CMS) is being rebuilt to align with the social-first strategy and a social media sales manager has been hired.

Forbes’ social media team creates its own content but also regularly pitches stories to beat reporters. “There is a culture of openness,” says Shauna Gleason.

Some specific ways to help merge newsroom cultures:

  • At the Times-Shamrock in Pennsylvania, a weekly meeting called “Tweets & Treats” is led by an assistant news editor. “We discuss the past week’s metrics, plan for the upcoming weekend and brainstorm ideas for special projects, events and coverage,” says executive editor Larry Holeva.
  • In some newsrooms, social media team responsibilities include regular discussions with reporters and editors about digital practices: writing headlines, thinking about mobile stories, adding digital elements to stories. One social media team member called it “a concierge service” and a “bridge” for her newsroom’s digital divide. When Tory Starr worked at PRI’s “The World,” she introduced a new skill challenge (with prizes) to the newsroom each week to help reporters create social-first reporting on their topic.
  • What can newsrooms learn from brands? Commercial industries have products to sell, and so do news organizations. The difference is that, unlike in newsrooms, most people who work for big brands “are all invested in the product side.” When that happens, better and more creative ideas surface, said one New York social media editor in our survey.
  • Beat reporters and social media teams should work together on projects that combine all skills; for instance, finding the community’s “influencers.” If a story needs voices from local coal miners, social media teams can find those influencers on social media and facilitate a conversation, either at an event or a private Facebook group chat. “Meet people where they are,” said Rubina Fillion.

Efforts like these build upon themselves, says Yusuf Omar, and in time will “radiate and expand” to create a newsroom that meets both journalistic and business goals.

“It’s what publishers need to focus on,” says Omar. “The long game.”

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