How to teach social media in J-school

Social media is so new, it's easy to claim you're an expert on the subject. But some journalism professors are finding ways to teach the new medium as part of the curriculum, writes Alfred Hermida.

Social media is so new, it's easy to claim you're an expert on the subject. But some journalism professors are finding ways to teach the new medium as part of the curriculum, writes Alfred Hermida.

Social media is such a new phenomenon that it is easy for someone to claim to be an expert in the subject. A search on Twitter throws up all sorts of people claiming to be social media gurus. But at journalism schools, professors are working out how to teach social media to ensure that graduating students are proficient, if not expert, in this new addition to the curriculum.


Students use social media in their daily lives, with Facebook an almost permanent fixture on the computer screen. Yet they tend not to think about social media as part of their professional toolkit as journalists.

If anything, anecdotal evidence suggests that students are resistant to adopting social media, seeing it as a personal activity, rather than as part of their work as a journalist. The pressure is on educators to demonstrate the professional value of social media.

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The first step is working out what we mean by social media. After all, there has also been a social aspect to media, whether it was people discussing last night's TV in the office or clipping a newspaper article to send to a friend. But there is something new about services such as Facebook, Flickr and Twitter that let people connect, create, share and mash-up media.

European researchers Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content."

In other words, digital technologies that empower users to interact with each other, and participate and collaborate in the making of media, rather than just consuming media.

Clearly there is more to social media in the classroom than technology. Central to teaching social media is providing an understanding of how these digital tools affect the way students actually do journalism. The issue for many journalism schools is incorporating social media into an established and packed curriculum, within an academic environment where the pace of change is slow.

Lessons in best practices

The question of how to teach social media in a way that enhances journalism reverberated at a meeting of hundreds of journalism educators from across North America. The annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Denver provided a platform to discuss ideas on social media in the classroom. In a sign of the growing recognition of social media, the AEJMC even organized a competition for educators to share some of their best practices for incorporating social media into the classroom. (Read MediaShift's previous coverage of the AEJMC conference here.)



Social media panels proved a big draw at AEJMC


One idea mentioned by several speakers at the AEJMC conference was the value of incorporating social media into beat reporting. There are various ways that this can be done. Students can use Twitter to monitor the community chatter on issues in their beats through hashtags. They can also identify and follow key people connected to their beat.

But students also need to understand how to assess the stream of information on social media. Real-time services such as Twitter have established themselves as primary sources for breaking news, so it is important to teach students to critically measure and check the validity of information.

Social media is one way of introducing students to the notion of journalism as a conversation. The key lesson here is that these tools are not just another channel to distribute the finished story. Social media can help journalists reach out to audiences, seeking ideas for stories and fresh perspectives on stories they are working on.

One of the challenges here is teaching the different norms and practices on different social media services. For example, just posting a message seeking information is frowned upon. Instead, students are encouraged to be active on social media, showing they are contributing to the conversation rather than just taking.

Reputation Management

Social media blurs the line between the personal and the professional, so another important lesson is how to build and manage your online identity. Serena Carpenter at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University has students use Google themselves to research their online identity. She has found students are encouraged to adopt social media when they see themselves appear high up on Google.

In a variation of this, I have students Google each other to find out something they didn't know about their peer. The aim of the exercise is to make students aware of how future employers might see them.

The next stage is teaching students how to manage their reputation and establish their credibility. Prof. Carpenter has students complete their bio on numerous sites such as LinkedIn and Google Profile using the same photo, credentials and web links.

Social media has also been used for student-centered learning, for example, to educate students about the strengths and weaknesses of online collaboration. Bob Britten of West Virginia University used Google Maps for students to work together to map retirement homes in the area.

Rather than lecture students on the credibility of Wikipedia, Gary Ritzenthaler, a PhD student at the University of Florida, created a wiki for students to collaborate on study notes for an upcoming test. By participating, the students learned about collaborative writing but also became aware of questions about the credibility of content produced by others.

Thinking About Social Media

Practicing social media is not enough in an academic environment. There has to be a place for student reflection on what they have learned, explaining their understanding of social media. Students should have set out their goals for the use of social media and demonstrate they can assess the most appropriate platforms and services.

Teaching social media is more than showing students the mechanics of Twitter. Rather, they should learn how to build a network of relevant followers and how to interact with them to be a better journalist.

In the classroom, we need to stress that social media technologies do not just offer journalists new ways of doing old things. They offer the potential to explore new ways of telling stories, of collaborating and connecting with audiences, of rethinking how we do journalism.

Photo of AEJMC panel by Hunter Stevens via AEJMC News

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at



MediashiftThis article was originally published on PBS Mediashift. J-Source and Mediashift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audiences of both sites.