Web Journalism's rules of tech engagement

For some time now I’ve been preaching the Real-Time Reporting gospel, harnessing not only social media but all tech to advance journalism.

And while it, for me, is based on core journalistic values, it was clear that some folks were thinking that my message was an attempt to replace the way we did reporting.

So, that prompted me to whip up the rules I present at nearly every talk I give. This is a list of guidelines to remember when you engage with constantly-evolving Web Journalism.

These are the rules I work under:

Rule #1. Journalism first, technology second

Technology is, and will always be, changing. Our journalism core values do not. News judgment and ethics are key no matter if journalism is in the form of pixels or paper or whatever.

The point to all of this – printed word, Flash interactives, video documentaries, visualized data, social media, etc. – is not the tool. Let’s be clear, the point is serving the community by helping inform citizens in a democratic society.

It’s the people and their stories, not the databases and Twitter followers.

We use these powerful tools to help advance our journalism, not replace it. Got it? Good.

Rule #2. If your mom says tweets she loves you, check it out

This is basic Journalism 101 and it applies to old-school and new media alike. Whether you get an in-person tip or a Twitter message (it’s okay to call it a tweet, y’all), it is not fact. It’s the start of the reporting process, not the end of it.

If you get lazy and not fact-check, you’ll get burned. Remember, all we have is credibility – our word – it takes a lot of time and hard work to build up credibility, but no time to lose it.

Rule #3. Web/tech, including Social Media, does not replace in-person or phone interviews

There is an actively engaged community sharing a ton of information – much of it is TMI – on the Web. We’d be doing a disservice to our community by not engaging it in these new spaces.

But remember, while millions and millions are on Facebook and Twitter, there are millions who aren’t. Engage with your community in every space, but remember to reach out to the voiceless. The digital divide remains reality.

Rule #4. Citizen, Brand and Journalist

This is just the way it is. As a journalist, you’re not a typical civilian. This ain’t no 9-to-5 job… this is a lifestyle. Sorry.

So, when you experiment and engage with these new technologies, there are three roles you need to be aware of: Citizen, Brand and Journalist.

Your behavior can and does affect each one of these roles. Be conscious about what you are saying and doing. Be who you are… don’t fake it. But always work under the impression that there is no privacy online… because there isn’t any.

Rule #5. BE OPEN

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Why would anyone do FourSquare?” Before that it was “Why would anyone use Twitter?” Before that it was “Why would anyone blog?” And before that, it was “Why would anyone go and use the Internet?”

Get over it… and use it. Try it out. See if it works for your daily journalism routine. If you don’t like it… stop. But then try it again.

This is the new world we are in, and fighting against it does nothing but hurt you. So, learn about it and try new things. Isn’t that one of the reasons why you got into journalism in the first place?

I hope these are useful guidelines. If you think there are incomplete or inaccurate, or if you think these are perfect, comment and send me feedback. Let’s have a dialogue about this new world.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for seattletimes.com, SFGate.com, eXaminer.com, La Prensa Gr


  1. says:

    Excellent posting, Robert. I plan to share it with folks in our newsroom here in Spokane. My simplification of your message would simply be this: the platform doesn’t matter. The journalism does.
    I think this is especially important for journalism students. As you note, changing technology is the one constant in our profession. Today’s students will be providing content for platforms that haven’t even been conceived yet.