From the pen to the masses


Web 2.0 tools can get student news outquickly, cause new legal issues





Twitter. It is a name many student journalists coming back from media conventions have heard so often.

The “micro-blogging” service is used to communicate with people on the Web with similar interests. The purpose of the Web site is to “tell us what you’re doing in 140 characters or less.”

Instead of creating a blog post with a headline, photo and body of text, Twitter users give status updates (aka a “tweet”) similar to features used on social-networking sites like Facebook but with the same amount of content space as a text message. And the service has become a social-networking hit. According to September 2008 Nielsen Online ratings, Twitter had 343 percent growth in comparison to the prior year.

While Twitter is still young, student journalists have taken advantage of its marketing capability. Ashlee See, a student disc-jockey for Seattle (Wash.) University College radio station KSUB, said she started tweeting for personal messages and decided to expand it to the student radio station.

“It’s been kind of mixed reviews,” See said of the reaction to her use of Twitter in conjunction with her radio program. She said she “Twitters” when she is on-air for her weekly show and gets a small audience that listens to the online-hosted radio show.

Some college newspapers are using Twitter, too. The Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill uses the service to get information out quicker and to a different audience, student editor Andrew Dunn said.

See and Dunn are just a few of the students worldwide using Twitter to get their information out quicker. They both say reaction to the service has been unnoticed to some but hope more students will recognize its simplicity soon.

But with the popularity of these social-networking tools, it is only a matter of time before freedom of speech and press is tested for student journalists using these tools for reporting.

Alana Taylor, a journalism student at New York University, learned that instant blogging can bring an instant backlash — in her case, from a journalism professor who was the target of her commentary.

“It was just the kind of stuff you would say on Twitter. And I’m so used to blogging and micro-blogging about what happens to me in my daily life, that was just another event to me,” Taylor said.

Taylor, 20, says her NYU journalism professor told her not to Twitter or blog about class discussions after she wrote an online entry on the popular blog MediaShift. The site is run by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and is widely read among the journalism community.

In the opinion article “Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School,” Taylor wrote that her professor started explaining how blogs “are becoming more important” and asked the 16 students if they had a blog.

“One hand slowly rises. It’s mine. None of the other students in the class have a blog. It comes as a shock to me that the students in a class about ‘how our generation is very much invested in the Internet’ are not actually as involved,” Taylor wrote. “Again, perhaps I am an exception to the norm, but I like to think that having a blog is as normal as having a car.”

Her professor read Taylor’s 1,500-word opinion article and several tweets about the class and was not happy, according to Taylor. Taylor said her professor called her to her office and told her not to blog or “tweet” about class or what the professor said. Taylor said her professor, Mary Quigley, told her “that I bashed the school, burned her as a source, went behind everyone’s backs, and I invaded privacy in doing everything that I did.”

The article and several Twitter posts later turned into an ethics and First Amendment discussion after MediaShift Editor Mark Glaser wrote a follow-up article saying that Taylor’s professor “stifled” her use of blogging and tweeting. Quigley later e-mailed Glaser to say that, while students should not send e-mail or make calls during class, after class students “were free to text, Twitter, blog, email, post on Facebook or whatever outlet they wanted about the course.”

Taylor has decided not to write about the class and admits to self-censoring because of the precarious situation.

“There are a lot of times when my first instinct would be, ‘Wow I want to Twitter what she just said’ or ‘I want to Twitter what just happened,’” Taylor said. “But I don’t because already I know there’s so many people watching me and not everyone agrees with it.”

While remaining active in part-time journalism jobs she gained through Twitter, Taylor says the future looks bright for Web 2.0 tools for the future of journalism.

“I think with all these new tools and everybody sharing their information, it’s like there is just going to be so much more content to find in smaller micro-communities that can be created,” Taylor said.

While there has been high-profile First Amendment litigation concerning students’ rights to comment about school events on social-networking sites, Taylor’s is believed to be the first instance of a college student drawing a rebuke for comments made using Twitter.

With journalism migrating into popular Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, the question is how traditional principles of the First Amendment and media law will apply in these instantaneous and sometimes highly informal channels of communication.

Adam Goldstein, Student Press Law Center attorney advocate, says people using these Web services could face all the same legal problems that may occur on more traditional platforms — like a newspaper. While these problems on Twitter are so far more hypothetical than real, Goldstein said that the majority of laws to protect journalists were well-established before the advent of Web 2.0 and have not changed for decades.

Basic copyright law did not change until 1998, “but in terms of what a journalist does, the copyright law for a journalist was the same as it was in 1978 as it is today,” Goldstein said. “Libel law hasn’t changed in light of the Web. Invasion of privacy hasn’t changed in light of the Web. The laws that they might violate by using these services are virtually all the same.”


reports, Winter 2008-09