Student journalists face the challenges of using social media ethically. - Rhonda Dickens
While attending church, the founding director of Arizona State University’s print and digital wire service tweeted that he knew a source for a news story about a bear attack in Payson, Ariz.

“Been trying to tip news orgs to this since 8. Friend saw it. RT @azgfd Another bear attack at Ponderosa Campground,” Steve Elliott said June 24 on Twitter.

Elliott, a professor in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that like many journalists today, he used social media to help fellow journalists find sources and stay abreast of breaking news.

Christopher Callahan, the Cronkite School’s dean and an ASU vice provost, said critics of the journalism program accuse faculty members like Elliott of spending too much time training journalists to use social media in this way – for newsgathering and sharing.

Many critics believe students walk onto campus using social and other media effectively, he said, but student journalists do not automatically know how to professionally use social media.

Part of that training includes practicing ethics with online media use, Elliott said. With that in mind, he developed a written policy for the Cronkite School.

The issues posed a question for visiting high school journalism educators at the ASNE Reynolds High School Journalism Institute. If university journalism departments have published social media guidelines, should high school journalism educators be doing the same?

Robin J. Phillips, Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at the Cronkite School and a nationally recognized expert on social media, said journalists use accounts like Twitter and Facebook to connect with the community. But she said they shouldn’t use social media like a former beauty queen did, to voice complaints about the community, because such practices would not only damage the journalist’s brand but could damage the journalist’s credibility as well.

All news organizations, even educational ones, should have a plan for how to deal with these online publishing issues, she said, but the guidelines shouldn’t be so closely defined that they become difficult to enforce.

"I think the answer is that you need to have a social media policy and every place is a little bit different," Phillips said.

Despite the advice of university and professional journalists, high school journalism educators said that before attending the Reynolds Institute, their social media policies remained unpublished or nonexistent.

Donna Owen, a journalism adviser from McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Ga., said her school has produced a social media use policy, but she does not have guidelines specific to the newsroom. Owen said one could be necessary as the administration allows students to access social media in her classroom.

Chad Renning, an adviser at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix, Ariz., said he and his student journalists are still developing their use of social media to enhance readership and cultivate sources and that he plans to develop guidelines this coming school year.

Alan Weintraut, an award-winning journalism teacher from Annandale (Va.) High School and mentor to institute participants, said his school’s honor code demands the kind of ethical behavior that students should be practicing every day and that such behavior should transfer to use of social media.

Student journalists for The A-Blast, Annandale High School’s news publication, have not used social media in blatantly irresponsible or inappropriate ways despite being required to post something to Twitter daily and publish quarterly reports on Facebook, Weintraut said.

Weintraut said he didn’t think high school student journalists should be required to practice the level of impartiality of professional online journalists.

“I think they are shaping their world view and they’re just too young for me to be limiting them like that,” he said.

If high school journalism advisers want to develop their own policies, Elliott suggested written social media guidelines that relate back to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. He said he used the SPJ principles when the Cronkite School asked for more comprehensive coverage of ethics that included social media use.

On their website, SPJ advises journalists to:
• Seek truth and report it,
• Minimize harm
• Act independently
• Be accountable

Elliott said acting independently plays a particularly significant role in journalists’ ethics while using social media.

“That’s why saying that ‘Obama rules’ and ‘Romney sucks’ is probably gonna come back to bite you in the butt,” Elliott said.

Related Links
• Robin J. Phillips' Social Media presentation slideshow:
• SPJ Code of Ethics:
• ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Social Media Guidelines for Student Journalists:

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Cronkite Connection ASNE Reynolds HSJ Institute at Arizona State University Phoenix, AZ
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