Connection to media actually disconnects people

In a University of Maryland study, 200 journalism students gave up for 24 hours all media, including Facebook, iPods and mobile phones. Students reported feelings of addiction, including anxiety, cravings and withdrawal. (Photo by Erin Klema.)

We’ve all been there — sitting on the train overhearing another passenger’s call, dining with a friend and her BlackBerry, watching the Super Bowl with friends who are more engaged with their mobile devices than the game itself or the company surrounding them.

Media is inescapable it seems, especially now that it fits in the palms of our hands.

But could this constant connectivity to the world through technology be preventing us from actually connecting with our friends and community?

In a University of Maryland, College Park, study, 200 journalism students went without media for 24 hours. They couldn’t watch TV, read a newspaper or flip through a magazine. Accessing Facebook and social media, email and the Web were no-nos. Phones were turned off. Radios and iPods went mute.

Or, that was the intent, at least.

Media is ingrained in college students’ daily lives

The students selected one 24-hour period within a nine-day window to disconnect, and the study found students’ use of media has become habit, ingrained in their daily lives. Students reported turning on the car radio, logging onto Facebook and turning on the television without realizing they were breaking their 24-hour no-media rule.

One student even admitted, “I wish I didn’t cheat with the assignment by checking my email and phone, but the anxiety was insane. I had no clue how connected I was with my friends and the world at all times. I never realized how much I text messaged my friends or checked Perez Hilton until I couldn’t.”

Mobile phone is a student’s lifeline

The University of Maryland study found students were most reliant on their cell phones. In addition to calling their friends and family, students reported they use their phones to email, check Facebook, play games and text at all hours. The cell phone was the center of their connection. For University of Maryland senior Gloria Johnston, her mobile phone is just that.

Without media, isolation and anxiety set in

Without access to their phones, the students involved in the University of Maryland study found themselves in “logistical nightmares,” unable to make plans via text message or Facebook.

“Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” wrote one student involved in the study. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”

The disconnect from friends, family and the world was a common trend reported by the students. Like those students, Johnston said she would feel “anxious” without access to her phone and media.

While Johnston would worry about missing something important, she was most anxious that her friends and family would not be able to contact her if she didn’t have her phone.

Increased connection to people and surroundings while unplugged

Although Johnston, like the students involved in the study reported feeling, would feel anxious being virtually disconnected, college student Jake Reilly developed deeper relationships with his friends, not their profile pages, once he unplugged from all social media, email and his mobile phone for 90 days.

Virtually unplugged, Reilly found other ways to communicate — like actually having face-to-face conversations and writing messages with sidewalk chalk.

In the University of Maryland study, students reported that they spent quality time with friends and on hobbies and coursework they usually neglected due to the distractions of Facebook and other media. Students also reported seeing more and talking more as they walked from class to class without iPod earbuds in, likely zoning out their environment to the beat of Lady Gaga or LMFAO.

Reilly’s experiment and the University of Maryland study both show we, especially people under 30, use today’s technology and media to connect with music, news, entertainment and other people. Yet, this also shows that when we are connecting via media, we are also disconnecting from our surroundings and face-to-face interactions.

Like Reilly noted, are we really connecting via media to our friends, or merely their Facebook profiles?

Fixing filter failure ensures quality journalism reaches news consumers

Information overload is not a new problem. As Clay Shirky said, receiving a high volume of information has become the norm. At the root of the problem is filter failure.

Since the introduction of the printing press, the publishing industry has held the duty to decide which information was important enough to print. However, once the Internet became mainstream, producing content was cheap and easy. Therefore, publishers were no longer needed to “print” a novel, and newspapers and traditional media outlets weren’t the only ones reporting the news. A whole new wave of information broke through the filter of traditional publishers.

The expansion of the Internet coupled with the rise of blogging and social media allows the general public to become content producers, documenting everything from the mundane to the vital news with Facebook status updates, tweets, instagram photos and more. Our problem now is sifting through all of those mundane Facebook status updates to find that really important bit of information we might deem newsworthy.

As consumers of information, we once gathered news from the morning newspaper, perhaps the radio during our drives to and from work or school, the evening or late night newscast and of course the talk around the proverbial water cooler. Altogether, we received information from these four main avenues, and we understood the filters that governed the flow of information to us.

Now, those channels that flow information to us have doubled, maybe even tripled. News has never been more readily available than it is today, and it is available on many platforms, including but not limited to print publications, TV, radio, podcasts, streaming video, websites, email blasts, text message alerts, tweets, Facebook status updates and blogs. Like Shirky said, we have to assume we will continue to be targeted; the flow of information will not slow or stop, especially with so many vehicles of getting information to us.

Not only is there more information to spread and more channels for flowing that information to consumers, the standard for sharing information has also been lowered. Shirky pointed to livejournal, a blogging website that was popular about 10 years ago with teenagers who wrote about their angst-filled high school lives. Those blogs were public diaries often filled with information few people would care to know. Yet they were out there, in the blogosphere, for anyone to read.

Shirky says the filters we had are broken. When the filters fail, it is time to design new ones.

To ensure news stories are making it through the filters and standing out from the plethora of information available, especially online, journalists need to become better filters themselves.

A journalist’s job is to gather information from multiple sources and to share that in a fair, accurate and succinct report. To do that with today’s massive amount of information flowing our way, journalists need to be suspicious of the information we receive. Information published online or by another outlet, should not be taken as fact without scrutinization. We still need to fact check, investigate and be wary of sources that might steer us wrong. Only then can journalists remain relevant and preferred over the average content producer.

Sharing news stories with consumers relies on two filters: the publisher and the platform’s parameters. As journalists, we are the publishers, and we still decide what information is important enough to share with our readers, viewers, listeners or users. The second filter, the platform parameters, deals with how we share our stories, especially in regard to the web and mobile devices.

As an industry, we know search engine optimization plays an important role in how we word headlines, subheads and cutlines. Using “picture” rather than “photo” may drive more web traffic to our site if it is a more commonly used search term. When sharing links to our news stories on Twitter, using hashtags as a way to sort and label information for consumers will help them to find which of our stories are relevant to their particular interests. These are examples of parameters we can control to ensure our stories reach our audience, despite the information overload.

As journalism forges onward into the digital age, coping with filter failure will make or break our industry. How journalists receive information and how we share it with consumers needs to adapt to work with new filters to ensure quality, rather than just quantity.

Super Bowl viewers will engage with two screens Sunday

This Sunday, many Americans will watch Super Bowl XLVI, but the television will not be the only the electronic device to which viewers turn.

Almost half of Super Bowl viewers are expected to check their mobile devices up to 10 times during the game, Mashable reports. More than 80 percent of polled viewers said they will check their mobile device at least as much as they did during last year’s game, Mashable reported citing a Harris Interactive study.

Live tweeting and Facebook-status updating via mobile devices has become a common way to interact with friends and the outside world during live televised events, including presidential debates, awards shows, last year’s royal wedding, last week’s State of the Union address and Sunday’s big game.

However, the practice of TV watching with mobile device in hand is not limited to these special events.

A yet-to-be-released Nielson study found about 45 percent of Americans who own mobile devices watch television while engaging with a second screen, reported the Washington Post. Among tech-savvy teenagers, that percentage is even higher at 53 percent. The trend spans across the generations with 38 percent of tablet users ages 55 and older reporting they also watch television with their mobile device in hand.

Interested to hear from a member of the older generation who uses tablets while watching TV, I called my own mother, a 57-year-old housewife with an iPad. Sure enough, she is part of the 38 percent. Specifically, she checks for recipes and products mentioned during her morning and daytime news and talk shows. Sometimes she checks the shows websites; other times her search turns to Google, she said.

While my mother surfs the web as she watches television, others also engage in discussion about the shows they are viewing.

Using Twitter search terms, called hashtags, signified by the pound sign, Twitter users interact with other TV viewers and even the stars of television shows. On NBC’s “The Voice,” which will premiere its second season following the Super Bowl, viewers are encouraged to tweet to the show. The show even invoked a social media correspondent to drive conversation on air and online. Bravo executive Andy Cohen also uses his Twitter account to pull audience questions during his late night talk show.

This two-screen multitasking has pushed traditional Super Bowl advertisers to reach the audience through multiple devices. Already, more than 39,000 subscribers have signed up for YouTube’s adblitz, a channel that compiles the 2012 Super Bowl ads. Also, Discovery News reported Chevrolet has released a Super Bowl smartphone app that allows users to enter to win prizes, and Coca-cola has a Facebook page and website where users can interact with the brand’s signature polar bears as they watch Sunday’s game.

What does this mean for journalists?

For broadcasters, the overall trend of engaging with a second screen means it will be increasingly important to provide viewers additional online resources.

For legacy publications and online mediums, tweeting during live televised events like the Super Bowl may drive web traffic to their sites, simply because that is when a captive audience is viewing their tweets.

And for the sports journalists covering Sunday’s Super Bowl, quickly updating statistics and utilizing social media will be key to grabbing the interest of mobile users.

Positioning TBD to scoop competition

Looking at TBD’s prospects for future growth and improvement, both financially and editorially, I identified three areas in which the website could make changes to better serve its Washington, D.C., area users.

Back to basics

Scrap the arts and entertainment model, TBD. And get back to reporting the news full time. The D.C. media market is saturated, but TBD’s breaking news coverage of the Discovery Building hostage situation proved the site could compete. Breaking news might be TBD’s best asset considering its online-only format and built-in partnership with TV stations.

Plus, leaving the On Foot blog, weather, commute and high school sports tabs on the TBD navigational bar already shows me the site never fully committed to its new focus on arts and entertainment. That has become more apparent as I have continued to see news coverage from TBD since the switch. When the earthquake rattled D.C. in August, TBD had a hard-news live blog for several hours that day. Looking at the website today, I found teasers on the home page for health and business stories. That certainly doesn’t sound like just arts and entertainment. TBD should fully commit to either enterainment or all news, including arts and entertainment. Since the site is already incorporating some news stories as well as transit, weather and sports, I’d like to see TBD desert the hybrid news-entertainment site it is now to re-introduce the original news model.

Making use of partnerships

Although WJLA, the Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate, may have found TBD.com hurt its brand, the fact remains that the two are owned by Allbritton and both cover news in the D.C. area. A partnership of sharing content seems like an easy way to provide more news to the D.C. area, especially when newsrooms operate with skeleton staffs.

Don’t ignore the suburbs

TBD defines its coverage area as Washington, D.C., and the surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia. But how often does TBD actually report on news or even arts and entertainment stories outside the District? Erik Wemple, former TBD editor-in-chief, said in an interview that TBD’s audience is “packed into the inner core of the District.” Its sister-TV station, WJLA, has further reach into the suburbs; TBD should capitalize on that.

 

On Foot blog model of TBD’s potential

During the past three months, I have taken a critical look at TBD, a Washington, D.C., news website that launched last August and within a year had already been repurposed into a local entertainment news site. Although the original format was abandoned, the TBD On Foot blog remains. And for that, I’ve found a reason to continue using TBD once my semester of online journalism ends.

Considering the focus of the website is now on D.C. entertainment news, the On Foot blog, which reports on transit-related issues, seems out of place to me. As an outside observer, I would have thought anything non-entertainment would have been eliminated after the switch.

However, evidence of the blog’s success may have been its life vest when TBD’s original news format tanked. The TBD On Foot blog’s official Twitter feed has 1,630 followers and some blog posts within the past week like this one garner as many as seven user comments. In comparison, the overall TBD Twitter feed has nearly 14,000 followers, and on TBD’s Arts Blog, I had to scroll down to a post from Nov. 21 before I found a post with more than one comment. Most Arts Blog posts had zero comments and only one had a single comment between that Nov. 21 post and today. The Arts Blog does not even have its own Twitter feed. Given the On Foot blog’s social media following and consistent user interaction, it makes sense from a financial standpoint to keep the blog going despite the new focus on arts and entertainment.

Personally, I enjoy reading John Hendel’s blog posts, and if I commuted into the district on a daily basis, I would likely check this blog several times each week. Written in a bloggy voice, On Foot is both informative and entertaining. Hendel uses videos, photos and maps to storytell, making use of TBD’s online-only platform. Consistently, there are daily posts, generally more than one. Best of all, Hendel uses humor and weaves in lighthearted stories from time to time.

The On Foot blog encompasses all that TBD briefly was and could be again. The blog consistently has the scoop on transit issues and updates regularly, as TBD showed it could do as a news site when it first launched with its multimedia breaking news coverage of the Discovery Channel building hostage situation. The blog also utilizes social media and visual storytelling, fitting with TBD’s outset to revolutionize local news coverage.That is why On Foot is what I have come to love about TBD. And did I mention Hendel is funny?

 

Smart design makes TBD easy to navigate

Clean and functional design is key for reading and navigating a website. For a news website like TBD.com, usability is of utmost importance to ensure readers are able to find and read the news of the day.

Following the standard grid of news website design, TBD sorts content into boxes down the left side of the home page. A slight deviation from the traditional grid that links to other sections of the website on the far left side of the home page, TBD uses tabs under the nameplate. However, this is not an unusual deviation from the standard grid and can also be seen on thesentinel.com, washingtonpost.com, gazette.net and baltimoresun.com in the greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area. To the right is more content, including ads and social media widgets.

Following this standard web design, also follows what the industry has learned about eye scanning. When we look at a website, our eyes read in an “F” or sometimes an “E” pattern.

When I look at TBD’s home page, my eye is drawn to the tabs across the top of the page. However, my eyes don’t finish reading across the tabs before I start scanning down the page. I notice the panda photo and scan the text next to it, and then my eyes pick up the bold headings: D.C., Arts Blog, On Foot. As I start to scroll to the stories “below the fold” or below what shows on my browser when I first open the home page, I speed read the bold blue headlines on first glance.

Whether by accident or purposely designed, it was smart TBD placed the tabs in the order it did. As an entertainment site, visitors may be looking at the site on a whim when a tweet piques their interest. Therefore, it is important the tabs for arts, music and entertainment and the photo galleries are to the left, where these fickle visitors are likely to look first. Visitors interested in weather or traffic information likely visited the site for that specific reason and will seek out those tabs even though they are far to the right.

Once the visitor clicks on a tab, taking them to the entertainment section or photo galleries, the tabs are still visible along the top of the page. This makes it easy to navigate from page to page, section to section, without returning to the home page.

Personally, I prefer the use of tabs over the left side navigation bar. The white space created by leaving the left side vacant allows the eye to rest. Additionally, I find it more aesthetically pleasing than the left-side links, which make websites like The New York Times look very busy, as seen here:

 

Visual TBD lacks interactivity

Examining TBD’s use of photos, graphics, audio clips, videos and interactive elements, I found the website comes up short in most of these areas. However, the one area the site does utilize regularly is photo galleries, which are uploaded about twice a day.

Some of the photo galleries are purely for entertainment purposes like this slideshow of 10 awful gifts for D.C. residents. Some galleries — including “Trikke: Giving Segway a roll for its money” and “Rob Moten’s Republican run” — are informational and tell a story like a traditional photo story or photo essay.

Although TBD makes use of photo galleries, the site could improve the slideshows. The Trikke and Moten galleries could have been shorter; I started losing interest, especially when images of Trikkes looked repetitive.The cutlines for the “funny” entertainment slides are hit and miss. Some are hilarious; some read like inside jokes of which even I, a D.C. area resident and TBD user, am on the outside.

Today I found a TBD slideshow featuring 11 images without cutlines for the photos. In comparison, NBC Washington made its own slideshow using the same photos of National Zoo animals painting. Including cutlines that explained both the action in the photo and background about the zoo’s animal enrichment program, the NBC slideshow was more informative and, in my opinion, more enjoyable.

TBD’s On Foot blog consistently uses photos and visual elements. A post this week featured three videos, a photo and a screenshot of a tweet. Not only did the multimedia elements make the reading experience more interesting for the user, these elements were actually part of the story. The first video of the Christmas caroller singing is placed within the text of the story, rather than set above or below the story, which could have made it appear like its own entity.

TBD’s Arts blog also makes use of multimedia elements, predominantly photos, videos and audio clips. In a Nov. 23 post, Kim Chi Ha includes a video and clips of songs from some of the artists she mentions having shows in D.C. over Thanksgiving week.

Looking at TBD’s home page and clicking through the other tabs, I couldn’t find a poll on any of those pages. Also, in the dozen or so TBD stories, blog posts and photo galleries I explored during the past week, I did not come across any chats, maps, info graphics or quizzes.

Therefore, I found TBD is visual, using photos and videos with many of its stories and blog posts, but the site lacks interactivity. Other than photo galleries, there aren’t elements for users to click through and interact with. The On Foot blog could implement maps for users to pinpoint where they are experiencing delays during their commute that day. A poll question that is updated every day or once each week would be a simple way for TBD to add an interactive element. If TBD makes a few advances in this area, users visiting the site may be more inclined to interact with the website for a longer period of time.

A look at how TBD breaks news

How does a news website that bills itself as an arts-and-entertainment source cover breaking news?

That is exactly what I was hoping to discover this week as I took a closer examination of TBD and its breaking news coverage. What I found was a lack of consistency.

First, I had to dig to find the breaking news stories, as nothing catastrophic like a rare earthquake or hurricane named Irene hit the Washington, D.C., area this week. Often news sites will write “breaking” in the headline of a breaking news story, so I searched TBD for “breaking.” No luck. I also scrolled back through tweets to Oct. 28 on TBD’s official Twitter feed looking for any tweets starting with “breaking,” but again, my search came back empty.

My theory for TBD’s lack of breaking news is its shift in focus from local news to arts and entertainment. Under TBD’s original format, there was breaking news and the potential to break news consistently.

Last week, I blogged about TBD’s coverage of the hostage situation at the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Md., last September, a prime example of TBD breaking news coverage before switching to the arts-and-entertainment format.

Posted shortly after TBD’s launch in August 2010, this multimedia story was four pages with updates spanning three days and included audio of 911 phone calls, numerous photos and five WJLA videos. The story was first posted at 1:24 p.m. Sept. 1, 2010, according to the TBD website. This was just four minutes after shots were fired at the Discovery building, according to the story.

TBD was quick to report the hostage situation. It also consistently updated the story as information became available, clearly indicating updates to the story as such in bold with the time and later the date of the update, as can be seen here:

In addition to this thorough breaking news report, TBD also posted a story about James J. Lee with three videos, photos from TBD’s photographer and users, a livestream video of the hostage situation, several non-TBD bloggers’ posts and other news outlets’ stories, a story about a hostage’s statement and a video of WJLA’s coverage. And that was all from the first 24 hours.

Coverage of the hostage situation was quick, thorough, social and told in multimedia. However, this was months before TBD became an arts-and-entertainment site. Since the switch, TBD is far more focused on art, music, theater and entertainment than local breaking news, as it should be if the site is committed to the new focus.

Despite the lack of breaking news since the switch, almost a year after the hostage situation, TBD updated a live blog following the D.C. earthquake this August. The blog was updated every few minutes for two-and-a-half hours and included links to external sites and videos. Although this coverage was not as comprehensive as the Discovery hostage coverage, it is an example of how TBD uses the online medium to quickly post information, link to external sources and update stories as information changes or new information is gathered.

Given TBD’s new format as an arts-and-entertainment website, there is less focus on breaking local news. However, coverage of the D.C. earthquake shows the site has not completely abandoned its initial attempt to report local, breaking news in new and innovative ways. The site has covered breaking news quickly with clear and consistent updates and multimedia elements for both the Discovery hostage situation and, more recently, the D.C. earthquake. However, TBD has not proved yet that it covers breaking news consistently. Likely, this is due to the site shifting away from local news, a genre in which more breaking news stories are bound to happen.

Would I turn to TBD for breaking news coverage in the D.C. area? Perhaps. I think I would likely still check washingtonpost.com first, but if TBD grabbed my interest with a tweet or Facebook post that pulled me into a story like the hostage one, I would likely check back with the site throughout the coverage of that particular news event.

An ethics policy for online journalists

Values

First and foremost, reporting should be truthful, accurate and fair. Online journalists should adhere to industry ethics standards set forth by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Stories should include a minimum of two sources, and facts should be confirmed by two sources. In accordance with the Society of Professional Journalists, sources should be named and identified by relevant attributes, such as field of expertise or possible conflicts of interest, “whenever possible” to ensure users have “as much information as possible about a source’s reliability.”

Online journalists should remain unbiased, avoid conflicts of interest, act independently, be accountable to their users and remember we are humans first and journalists second.

Corrections

Corrections will be made by an editor with consultation from the content producer. Corrections will be made directly to the story as quickly as possible. To provide further clarification for factual errors, an “editor’s note” shall explain the correction of inaccurate information and be placed above the story. Typos within text should be fixed, but if they do not change the context or accuracy of the information, they do not require an explanation.

Linking

Linking to other websites is generally acceptable as it is a way to reference another publication’s information without plagiarizing or stealing it.

When linking to a website that expresses only a one-sided view, content in the story or a link to a website expressing the opposing viewpoint should be included to provide balance.

Also, reporters should not link to obscene content.

Interviews

Interviews should be done in person whenever possible. Phone interviews are acceptable but not preferred. Email or social media interviews should only be used as a last resort, and quotes and information from these interviews should be indentified as such. Information gathered from an email interview should be fact-checked with another source.

Social Media

Journalists should identify themselves as such on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media websites, whether their accounts are personal or professional, private or public.

Journalists should be transparent with their “intentions when participating” in social media websites and public forums, as the Washington Post’s newsroom guidelines for social media states.

When contacting potential sources via social media, journalists should clearly identify themselves and their objectives.