In the mid 2000s, social media began giving great power to the ordinary individual.
Suddenly, anyone who created a post on the Internet could become a major (and credible-seeming) publisher of information. These stories, photos, and videos often even have the feel of breaking news, due to their nearly real-time occurrence on social media. Adding to the confusion — and the blurring of lines between amateur and professional reporting and commentary — is the fact that much online content is even picked up by actual television news networks and publications.
Young people must realize that there is a difference, however, between a news outlet, which is legally obligated to fact-check its information before releasing it to the world (to avoid libel lawsuits), and a person with a smartphone who feels emboldened by the ability to share information with a few taps.
The ramifications of the information age can possibly make or break the future of a young person looking to share her views with the world. Here’s my advice for helping students navigate the world of new media and understand why media literacy is crucial — both for consuming stories and for reporting them responsibly.
1. Don’t believe something just because it’s online.
Think about all of the stories you read out there on the Internet that didn’t feel or seem right for one reason or another. Think about recent reporting on police brutality: Do you believe that authorities may be hiding or obscuring information? Is the image that has become so pervasive and vilified, the young black man, being reinforced and perpetuated in the media? Or it it being questioned and interrogated in an honest way? Don’t trust any one story; do your own research, cross-reference articles, and form your own educated opinion.
2. Become an advocate for fairness in reporting.
What do you do if you strongly disagree with a media story? If it’s on the Web, post a comment, write the editor, and share it with your social networks. Or create your own news story and report it as you feel it should be reported. However, as you research and write your own story, be sure that your standards are higher than the article or broadcast you were originally unhappy with.
3. Understand that media can be used for good and for bad.
Comprehending how social media can affect one’s future is important, but grasping the ways in which it can harm one’s peers in the present is crucial, too. This is why educators need to make time to teach young people about the potential consequences of cyberbullying and pranks. Kids often lack the ability to fully realize the ways in which language can hurt others. They may be able to delete a comment from someone’s Facebook profile or Twitter feed, but they can’t delete the feeling they caused one of their peers to experience. One of the dangers of social media is that it is difficult to decipher tone. Major platforms are largely text-based, so even remarks made in jest may be taken seriously.
4. … so use it for good.
Whether or not you are posting a video to YouTube about a cultural event or writing a blog or Facebook post that will help your classmates learn about a project you’re working on in school, don’t forget that social media — and media as a whole — does not have to focus solely on bad news. Talk about the importance of learning, the benefits of what you’re reporting on, and explain how your subjects are making a positive impact on the world.
## 5. News is shared quickly, so check your facts before you tell your story.
People today seem so hungry for news and information they often believe what they read or see immediately and without questioning it. Therefore, it is essential that you check your facts before you share any information (either passing on a story you’ve read or watched, or something you’ve written yourself). If you report on something that ends up being untrue, and your story goes viral, you may find your own reputation being called into question. This may prove damaging in the future, especially during a job search, and it may be even more problematic if you want to work in a journalism- or media-related field.
If your high school doesn’t offer journalism classes, your English teachers should spend a few days explaining the basics of gathering, writing, and fact-checking news, including the ethics surrounding reporting on sensitive or in-progress stories.
6. Think (and proof) before you share anything.
Students look at social media as an opportunity to make their voices heard. They should have an understanding of the process reporters and writers follow before an article is published: writing and self-editing, submitting drafts, working with editors, and remaining disciplined and focused on style, facts, and grammar.
7. Remember, what’s out there is permanent.
Young people who share information in the heat of the moment are often doing so because they’re experiencing a strong emotional response to something. Heightened emotions can cloud social (or personal) responsibility when it comes to posting content, and decisions to share cannot be unmade. Once even a single person sees, saves, or shares your content, it’s out of your hands.
The basic rules of social media etiquette are important for students to learn and for schools to include as part of their curricula. Young people simply may not be aware that their online behavior in an emotional moment may limit their options in the future. Educators should remind youngsters that college recruiters, athletic recruiters, and employers routinely check social media profiles before making final decisions.
Now that you’re on the way to becoming a bona fide citizen journalist and critic of media, enjoy the journey. Take pride in giving a voice to the voiceless and sharing the stories of unsung heroes in your community. As you consider the world around you and the swirling nature of its news, your education will help you to define both the stories you tell and the voice you use to tell them.