Social Media Alarmism: The Role of Craptastic Journalism

Listen, as a reporter/blogger/whatever, I am sympathetic to the need to have something to say: you can’t be a reporter without anything to report. I am also aware that local TV news reporting isn’t necessarily, um, the crown jewel of our profession: when “If it bleeds, it leads” is a professional rule of thumb, you’re in pretty icky territory. But I really can’t tolerate the tactic of fastening on the latest trend, turning it into a bogeyman, and then whipping everyone into a frenzy over it.

Take this report from Fox 23 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on teachers having sexual relationships with students that are supposedly abetted by social media. Sensational? You bet. Salacious? Certainly. Alarmist? Definitely: “When you were a child you talked to your teacher in the hallway or in the classroom. Now you have Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging and that can turn good teachers into bad teachers.”

Factual? Well, somewhat. Because if you read the transcript of the report carefully, you’ll see that social media played a role in two of the 13 instances of inappropriate sexual relationships: not exactly evidence of an epidemic -- but that’s how it’s presented, using the old journalistic tricks of juxtaposition and suggestion. If we mention these other cases after the cases involving social media, they must also involve social media, because that’s what the report is about, right? Right.

The trick isn’t particularly slick: the report starts out with the straightforward assertion that “There have been a number of sex scandals involving teachers in Oklahoma this year.” Fair enough. The first teen interviewed says her relationship with a teacher involved social media, although she doesn’t specify which sites (along the way text messages are also condemned, even though they’re not really social media, but whatever). Fair enough, chalk up one case to social media.

The next case is of a 27-year-old female teacher who was caught in flagrante with a 17-year-old male at a local motel. Now, maybe they just forgot to highlight the connection to social media, or maybe they are playing fast and loose with the facts -- but either way, there is no mention of social media in relation to this case. The local superintendent gets quoted however: “It's a violation of sacred trust and it’s unacceptable.” Fair enough.

There are some numbers cited in the report: “Fox23 requested documents from the Oklahoma State Board of Education involving teacher certification revocations since 2008. Twenty teachers had their certifications revoked due to child sex crimes. In 72% of those cases they involved sexual crimes with a student.” The only problem is that these statistics don’t specify how many cases involved social media.

And take a look at this wording, which is awkward and ambiguous enough to be open to several interpretations: “Most are men, but a handful are women hooking up with students where the relationship flourishes behind a veil of social media, texting and e-mails.” If you can figure out from that whether social media was involved in most of the cases, or only a handful, you deserve a degree in linguistics.

The report concludes with a review of eleven recent cases of teachers having sex with students. While these cases may or may not have involved social media, only one of them explicitly states that the case involved “Soliciting Sexual Conduct or Communication with a minor by use of technology.” The rest make no mention of social media.

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1 comment about "Social Media Alarmism: The Role of Craptastic Journalism".
  1. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC , May 25, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.
    "Twenty teachers had their certifications revoked due to child sex crimes. In 72% of those cases they involved sexual crimes with a student.” The only problem is that these statistics don’t specify how many cases involved social media." The other problem is that 72% of 20 is 14.4. How does that happen? Social media is one of several phenomena that attract bad journalism by combining high awareness with low understanding. Banking and climate change are two others that come to mind, and I'm sure you can add to the list.