Archive for January, 2013


In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

In a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, they demand special consideration before displaying them in public. For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and thus preserve credibility.

So, at a time we’re still weighing New Year’s resolutions, or wondering whether to uphold the ones we’ve made, consider putting patience high on the list. Armed with it, writers and editors more easily catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding patience where none existed. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help then to install social media speed bumps of a sort — a set of objectives that forces introspection. For this, we could adapt journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Though social media networks permit users to group their followers, most users don’t, and their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The result: just one post intended for a small group of followers could send others packing. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly, and whether you’re doing the same and not relying on conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume the faster we post, the more certain we are to ride the leading edge of news. Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” on breaking news were just as important as the information itself. In truth, no newspaper shut down and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we consider Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others to possess the same reach and intent. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles though with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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