Blog: The Educated Reporter

Risks and Rewards: Social Media as a Reporting Tool

Many education journalists are savvy enough to use social media as a way to attract readers to their stories. But if that is all they are doing with social media, they are not harnessing its full potential.

“Especially in our beat, it can be a really valuable — if potentially risky and dangerous tool — both for connecting with hard-to-reach sources and for generating story angles and ideas,” said Sarah Carr, who runs The Teacher Project, a fellowship program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Carr and several other journalists shared their strategies for making the most of social media tools, from connecting with sources for daily stories to doing deeper outreach for long-term projects, during a May 31 panel at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Washington, D.C.

Setting Up a Facebook Page

The Hechinger Report created a Facebook page in an effort to develop a source list that is more reflective of the country, as part of its project reporting on the quality of special education services across the nation, said Emmanuel Felton, a staff writer for the national news outlet who also was on the panel.

Reporters asked administrators of special-education Facebook groups to share the Hechinger page with their members, Felton said. Hechinger’s page soon attracted a few hundred members of the special-education community, primarily parents.

Hechinger reporters routinely shared stories, studies or legal opinions on the page and asked members how their experiences compared to the scenarios described in those posts.

Reporters took steps to ensure parents understood that The Hechinger Report Facebook page was not an advocacy site, and that its reporters are not advocates, Felton said.

This is true for any reporter using social media to communicate with sources.

For example, fellow panelist Francesca Berardi, a fellow at The Teacher Project, said she asked a source she had friended on Facebook to take down a post thanking Berardi and her colleagues for helping her.

Carr said, “It was a misrepresentation of our role.”

“The ideal is that we have impact, right? That’s the ideal, at least of journalism at Hechinger,” Felton said. “So it’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, great! You had impact in the world. Fantastic!’ Not like you are fighting side by side. I see a big difference there.”

Sensitive Topics

Caitlin Gibson, a features reporter with The Washington Post who also joined the panel, described a yearlong project that she and a colleague completed about the use of technology by Generation Z (those now age 18 and younger).Social media was a particular focus of the reporting, because young people in this age groups pend so much time on it. (The project won first prize for feature reporting in this year’s EWA Awards.)

One particularly sensitive story in the series focused on an adolescent boy who had convinced his female friends to send him nude photos. The boy then created a slideshow and showed it to his friends at a party. He was subsequently charged in juvenile court.

After discussions with newspaper lawyers and editors, the reporters reached out (via Facebook) to three girls who were involved with this incident after failing to connect with them or their parents via phone and email. The parents of one of the girls granted the newspaper permission to interview their daughter.

Reporters were able to reach the boy’s family, but they declined to comment. However, The Washington Post team found comments by the boy on a social media site. Those comments suggested that the boy felt remorse for his actions. They did not have the parents’ permission to quote the boy, but they wanted to paint a more complete picture of him rather than just a “faceless perpetrator.”

The Post did not identify him or the social media site, as he had not been identified by authorities when charged and was a minor. They took extra steps to ensure no one could identify him using details in their story.

“We decided to use one very brief snippet of it; there was some paraphrasing,” Gibson said. “We got it down to a two-word quote, where he said his actions ruined their lives ‘and mine.’ … There was no way a search result could possibly lead to him.”

In general, when a story is sensitive, Gibson said, the Post will not quote a student younger than 18 by name without a parent’s permission.

But Carr of The Teacher Project (and the author of EWA’s Reporter Guide to Interviewing Children) said it’s generally acceptable to quote older teens on lighter topics without parents’ permission.

Connecting With Sources

On a project about a troubled alternative school, Francesca Berardi, a fellow at The Teacher Project, connected with parents on school-review websites. Her colleague used Twitter to connect with students for a story about online credit-recovery programs, using what he said was a “grown-up version of message texting,” Berardi said.

Carr said both of these Teacher Project stories led to “far more” use of social media than the reporters initially anticipated.

She added that timeliness matters on social media. For example, Carr said she once “tweeted at a bunch of kids” and then left her computer and phone for a couple of hours. A few had replied while she was gone. But when she responded upon returning, they had “lost interest” in the conversation.

Gibson of The Washington Post said interviews she conducted with more than 100 kids in a year suggested that boys most often interact with others using gaming sites’ chat functions, while girls most often use Instagram and Snapchat. Not many are on Twitter, but almost all are on Facebook, she said.

However, Facebook is not primarily where youth interact with each other, but more a tool for them to connect with “older relatives” and school-based Facebook groups, Gibson said.

Teachers can often be found on Pinterest, Carr said, noting that they share lesson plans with each other on this platform. LinkedIn also was useful for reaching out to former employees of an alternative school who ended up providing critical information to advance a story.