As a journalist, you don’t have to ‘like’ social media

USA Today writer Michael Wolff deemed Columbia’s selection of Steve Coll as the new dean of its graduate j-school “an audacious statement about news values and direction,” due in part to the fact that Coll isn’t active on Twitter. I guess this means I should give my scholarship back.

Somehow, I never got around to joining Facebook. Or Twitter. Or LinkedIn. Or Google Plus. I also don’t own a smartphone or a tablet device. As a graduate student studying digital media, the irony isn’t lost on me.

I’m well aware that the gamut of social media platforms available today are tools that can enhance a journalist’s connection to audiences beyond a city block, surfacing trends and real-time reporting, bringing about heart-wrenching stories, and providing fast connections to potential leads. Journalists should consider social media as “no less vital than a phone or a camera” to our jobs, said Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, speaking at an Atlanta Press Club event in March.

But that doesn’t mean you have to join in if you don’t wish to. They are tools, not necessities. I worry that social media presence has become a requirement to being a good journalist. I love journalism for daring to push boundaries, for watching my peers and co-workers find those untold stories and delve into the search of truth. Carefully crafted status updates released at time frames calculated to guarantee the maximum number of “likes” don’t have to be a mandated part of that.

If the technology scares you – like it does my mother, who has bought a stack of books with titles like I Have a Twitter Account, Now What? – don’t let it. You can totally learn this stuff. Good journalists easily can become social media gurus, if they so choose.

Yet social media is just one method out of the many at our disposal. Grueskin warned of the risks of “diminishing potential audiences by preaching only to the converted” should journalists opt out of the social media whirlwind. But I think that’s underselling our audience. They will find us if we’re telling compelling stories.

To be really good at your job, focus on learning the tools you know you need to learn, not those everyone else thinks you do. Just ask great journalists how they became great. They nearly always tell you about the many weekends they borrowed recording equipment to understand how to shoot video, or the long night in the newsroom spent learning a new software to build an interactive for breaking news coverage, or the pointed efforts they continue to make to seek out feedback on drafts. If you love what you do, you will find ways to be better. Those ways won’t be the same for everyone.

We capture audiences with information, and we should allow ourselves the freedom to choose the method of delivery that works best for our style of storytelling artistry. If we all looked alike and reported in 140 characters, we’d be doing a great disservice to the diversity of voices we as journalists strive to represent.


This is one in a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholars describing their experiences, projects and sharing their knowledge with the ONA community.

Rebecca Rolfe is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, working on an online interactive data visualization that depicts an evolution of Oscar acceptance speeches over the years.