‘Open’ in the age of live tweeting

How UNITY 2012's student newsroom taught NAHJ a lesson about social media

A routine board meeting became the biggest story of last week’s UNITY convention after the National Association of Hispanic Journalists President Michele Salcedo refused to allow a student journalist to live tweet during NAHJ’s open board meeting.

UNITY, a quadrennial meeting of minority journalist organizations, features workshops, training sessions, banquets, career expos, and exhibitions. It also has a student newsroom, where selected student members of the four organizations that take part in UNITY—NAHJ, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association—work with professional mentors who help them cover the convention and the surrounding area (in this case, Las Vegas) for UNITY News, an online, print, and broadcast outlet.

Recent University of Houston graduate Nadia Khan was assigned to cover NAHJ’s open board meeting for UNITY News on July 31, only to discover that the meeting was not as open as she (or her editors) thought. While student projects mentor Joe Vazquez filmed, NAHJ president Salcedo informed Khan and Vazquez that tweeting and filming board meetings was against NAHJ’s policy.

Word spread via the same social media Salcedo was hoping to prevent from covering the meeting. The outcry was immediate and loud.

“This is incredible,” Jim Romenesko wrote on his blog.

“So, let me get this straight, we are a journalism organization but we don’t let journalists cover our meeting,” NAHJ member Bob Butler wrote on UNITY 2012’s Facebook page. Board member Rebecca Aguilar concurred, writing: “On this issue on the student reporter, I apologize in the way she was addressed by the President. I was embarrassed … It’s sad that we are a board of journalists and are trying to control information.”

And, naturally, there was a Storify that captured some of the Twitter reaction.

NAHJ later released a statement on its website saying that while NAHJ “practices transparency,” live tweeting is against its policy. Khan was allowed to stay and observe the meeting, but not live tweet it.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Vazquez told CJR, “telling someone they can stay but not report is kicking a reporter out.”

Salcedo did not respond to interview requests, but Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince reported that Salcedo told NAHJ members in an August 2 membership meeting that the policy was in place to prevent “misinformation” from being spread.

She may have a point. Khan’s first two tweets about the incident accused NAHJ and its Twitter handle, @NAHJ, of kicking her out of the meeting and refusing to allow anything but official minutes to be reported. These were followed by nine tweets that accused @NAHJSouthFl, or the South Florida chapter of NAHJ, of ousting her:

Khan was not willfully disobeying the deletion request; she was following UNITY News’s policy to issue a correction but not delete erroneous tweets, she told CJR. UNITY News Deputy Editor David Plazas agreed, adding that he was “very proud of the student for having acted very professionally despite the mistake.” Though NAHJ South Florida “had every right to be upset,” Plazas said, “We made a mistake and we certainly corrected it.”

Robles, of NAHJ South Florida, said in an email that she disagrees with UNITY News’s policy. Leaving erroneous tweets up where they can still be re-tweeted “is preposterous and only fuels misinformation … Chapter president Pia Malbran and I argued this point with the UNITY News editors to no avail.” Robles added: “I understand that people get hot and bothered when you delete tweets. But the few times that I tried not deleting a mistake, I watched how the mistake kept on living a new life through retweets.”

Robles did agree with UNITY News on other issues:

I do not however believe that it makes any sense to spend three days training people on social media, and then issue a policy saying that these new tools can be used everywhere except in our own board meetings. That’s nothing short of ridiculous and sends a terrible message. The rich irony of the student who was told not to tweet the board meeting turning around and tweeting nine mistakes that were damaging to the South Florida chapter is not lost on us. But we stand behind the student’s right to live-tweet the board meeting.

Much has changed for NAHJ in the week since the incident. On August 4, board elections brought in a new president, Hugo Balta, who made sure that NAHJ’s live tweeting policy was on the agenda of his first meeting as president that same day. (Salcedo did not run.) After about 45 minutes of discussion, Balta told CJR, the board voted 6-5 to repeal the live tweeting ban. He personally was in favor of lifting the ban. “I first get all of my news and information through my smartphone,” he said. A board that wants to ban one of the most popular forms of spreading information these days, Balta added, “does not realize that people do not consume news and information the way they used to. Not just 15 years ago, but three to five years ago.”

To demonstrate, Balta took to social media to announce the ban repeal, announcing it from his personal Twitter account.

And Khan, the student who kicked off the furor that led to the policy change, said she learned more than she expected from her work at UNITY. “Everything I learned in my classes I actually experienced in real life,” she said.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,