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Reporter addresses issue of skewed web content

Published: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 09:10

NPR Ombudsman 100610

ALICIA SHEPARD, the NPR Ombudsman, gave a speech in the USU Performance Hall, Tuesday, and shared tidbits she has learned throughout her career as a nationally recognized journalist. ANI MIRZAKHANYAN photo Fear

Social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, provide ways for journalists to spread information and find sources, but there is a need to be skeptical, said National Public Radio Ombudsman Alicia Shepard.

    Shepard, who works for NPR in Washington, D.C., visited USU to speak to students and faculty from the journalism and communications department. In a lecture given at the Performance Hall Tuesday, Shepard spoke on her ideas regarding the need for ethical fortitude in journalism, as media and technology continue to converge.

    "We're in the midst of a digital revolution and in many ways the rules of journalism have dramatically changed since 20 years ago, i.e. pre-Internet," Shepard said. "Social media provides great ways of distributing content and finding sources, but it's still critical to hold high ethical standards."

    Shepard, who has taught media ethics at Georgetown University, said the Internet facilitates the spread of information, but that information can be distorted. She said of her job as ombudsman that she makes sure everybody at NPR holds themselves accountable.

    "It is awesome that NPR has a position where they hire someone who basically is a public critic of their journalism," Shepard said. "It says they are confident as a news organization, but they still feel they could do better."

    Many journalists hold themselves to the key tenets of minimizing harm in reporting, acting independently and being accountable, Shepard said. Transparency is also important; many journalists feel they can create transparency through their blog.

    "Blogging, like Facebook and Twitter, is another tool that allows you to reach out to the audience to get help," Shepard said. "I think it's an awesome time in journalism and there are tons of possibilities ... journalism isn't dying, the platforms and delivery systems are changing."

    The best blogs are blogs that create a personal connection between the reader and the author, Shepard said. Good blogs use a conversational style and use active verbs, but it is important to state that the blog is an opinion.

    Among the vast advantages offered by advances in technology, Shepard said there are also many dangerous pitfalls to blogging and tweeting.

    The Internet can provide a false sense of security with privacy settings, she said. It is important for users to know that privacy is very limited on the web, and posting information online makes it very accessible.

    "There's not enough of an understanding of the impact of how you can hurt your reputation and your credibility with what you do on the (internet)," Shepard said.

Shepard referenced a recent incident in which a reporter had to resign from his job because he posted opinions about Mormons on his professional website. She said it is important to consider the impact and "think before you hit that ‘send' button."

    "If you are serious about journalism, be serious about being an ethical journalist in all you do," Shepard said. "One thing I am certain of, over time, it will be the trusted news sources that endure."

    Shepard said she sometimes brings issues of concern generated by NPR listeners into her media ethics class, in order to challenge her students to think critically, she said. The goal is to provide credible information that readers, listeners, and viewers can rely on.

    Any students planning on becoming professional journalists should do their best to stay neutral in the public realm, Shepard said. Journalists should avoid displaying political or religious opinions on social media sites.

    "You have to be thinking all the time that we now live in a world where the mic is always on," Shepard said. "You have to be a professional, that's your job."

    Journalism eventually became Shepard's passion, she said. Hers was a non-conventional trajectory that focused on doing what she was interested in. Shepard said she urges her 23-year-old son, Cutter, to do what fascinates him, and she encourages her students to do the same.

    "Really good journalism, at the end of the day, gets you interested in something that you had no idea you'd be interested in," Shepard said. "So here I am 30 years later, and I still wake up excited."



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