Social Media for Sociable Media Folks
I got a little blowback this week for a social media-outreach effort: We at DailyRecord.com created a Facebook group to ask Morris County, N.J. students what they thought of the major budget cuts that threaten programs and staff sizes at their schools.
We thought it was a good way to represent a typically underrepresented voice in the school budget debate. But some parents thought otherwise.
Some of our online commenters thought we were stirring up trouble — inciting kids to protest (the very idea for the page was prompted by the massive student-organized school walkouts that happened this week). Another parent called me, worried that we were encouraging kids to be fast and loose with their privacy — in particular when I asked for photos from one of the protests that our paper didn't attend.
Everyone knows by this point that the news industry is supposed to be using social media to better engage audiences — but where do we draw lines when minors are involved? Are there new rules we need to develop and consider? New ways we need to apply and clarify the rules we've always followed and respected?
I have a column on the matter running in the Daily Record (edit: The link is now dead, but the article is copied below). But I'm also curious what the MH folk have to say on this. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
We can learn a lot from teens — if we'll listen
By Louis C. Hochman
A lightbulb lit up over my head Tuesday -- right after someone else did me the favor of flipping the switch.
One of the Daily Record's more Web-savvy reporters, Meghan Van Dyk (@MeghanVanDykDR to you Twitter folks), realized what should have been obvious to all of us well before thousands of students across New Jersey walked out of their schools in protest of Gov. Chris Christie's budget cuts -- these kids have something to say.
There are plenty of people affected by and injected into the ongoing debate over how to handle school budgets in a fiscal crisis -- teachers and their union, taxpayers, school board members, and, of course, the governor. We hear from all of those parties regularly. But we in the news media don't often hear from the students whose education is in play.
In part, that's because those students simply aren't easily found in the places we go -- they don't spend their evenings at school board meetings, and their phone numbers aren't listed in county directories. Talking to students involves more effort; that means it often doesn't happen, which is a shame.
So Meghan suggested we engage Morris County's teens on their own turf: Facebook. We created the Morris County Student Sound-Off group. As I monitored and moderated the group, I got two surprises -- one very pleasant, and one less so.
Let's start with the second: The Daily Record (and I) got a little blowback from people who thought the group would cause trouble. Some online commenters thought we were encouraging students to protest, throwing out any claims to objectivity or impartiality along the way. One parent called me, worried we could violate teens' privacy with the group.
Of course, that wasn't our intention. As we try to use new and social media to hold more complete conversations, fine lines are easily blurred. We're in new territory, and we're aware we've got to tread boldly, but thoughtfully. But I'm glad most respondents seemed to understand what we were trying to do: Open our ears to whatever these frequently underrepresented stakeholders in the budget debate have to say.
And that brings me to the pleasant surprise: The teens who posted to our Facebook group, by and large, offered civil, well-thought out and varied perspectives on the budget crisis. The masses who walked out of schools in Morris County and elsewhere sent one message: Gov. Christie's budget cuts put students' futures at risk. That sentiment was shared in our Facebook group as well, but it was part of a dynamic discussion.
Some students said the New Jersey Education Association is unfairly demonizing Christie ("Someone is manipulating the kids in thinking the Gov. is doing a bad job"). Others wondered why administrator pay is so high, or whether it would really be so bad for teachers to sacrifice more ("My dad hasn't had a raise in two years and my mom hasn't been able to find a permanent job, so they don't understand why a pay freeze for school employees is such a big deal"). And some took issue with the protests themselves, saying they should have been done in a way that wouldn't disrupt the very education the protesters claimed to value ("I'm sad to say a good number of people standing out there today didn't even know why they were there").
Contrast that with the debate that's raged on DailyRecord.com. There, adults and teens alike are also having a valuable discussion about the budget and protests -- but it's often interrupted by people who are hateful or vandalous, or who get so caught up with emotion they resort to personal attacks. Here's one of the more timid examples from the last few days: "Do you have OCD that you must keep repreating (sic) yourself? Didn't I prove last night that you're not to (sic) bright -- what are you doing back?"
So thanks, teens, for showing us that what we hoped to find is true: Sometimes, you're the ones offering up the most mature and balanced commentary. And when we dismiss or forget what you have to say, it's our loss.
Louis C. Hochman is the associate digital editor of the Daily Record, and didn't have any Facey-booky Twitter-tweeting doohickeys when he was a kid. Now get off his lawn.