GEORGE KENNEDY: Social media is not a substitute for real journalism

Thursday, November 29, 2012 | 4:59 p.m. CST; updated 10:10 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 29, 2012

*This column was updated late Thursday evening after Michael Dixon Jr. announced he was transferring from MU.

If you're a Missouri basketball fan, as I am, you've no doubt engaged along with the rest of us in speculating about just what "team rules" violation has kept Michael Dixon, one of last year's star players, off the court this season.

Now we know.

The Missourian's lead paragraph Wednesday summed up the situation succinctly: “Missouri senior guard Michael Dixon Jr. was accused of sexual assault Aug. 20, according to a report by the Kansas City Star."

The story went on to report that the Boone County prosecutor has decided not to file criminal charges because of insufficient evidence. The story also noted – and an excellent follow-up Thursday explained – that disciplinary action by the university is still possible. *Then Thursday, after a 2010 allegation was revealed, Dixon announced that he was transferring from the university.

It's a sad story, all too familiar to followers of big-time sports. It's also a story that provides a glimpse of the role the new social media play in journalism and in public discourse more broadly. For both consumers and practitioners of journalism – that's you and me – this case raises important questions to which there are no simple answers.

I'll begin with a confession. I'm no expert and not even a participant in the new communication channels. I've never tweeted on Twitter; I don't have a Facebook page; I decline all invitations to join LinkedIn. I seldom carry my cellphone, and it doesn't have the capacity for texting. But I can't ignore the role these tools play in our society's conversation with itself. Like it or not, you can't either.

In talking with Missourian editors over the past couple of days, I've learned a lot about just how the Dixon situation evolved from a topic of ill-informed gossip to heated exchanges on Twitter to fact-checked stories in actual newspapers.

Sports Editor Greg Bowers told me that his staff, like many fans who frequent the "insider" websites, had assumed that Dixon’s problem was academic. That began to change Thanksgiving Day when Managing Editor Jeanne Abbott, who had the holiday duty, got a phone call from a woman who said she had been assaulted by Dixon. She left her phone number but not her name.

Attempts to reach her failed. Then Saturday, former Tiger Kim English, a Twitter regular, posted three tweets in which he criticized the university process, praised Dixon and hoped for his reinstatement by the "AMAZING chancellor." The woman, using the handle @armybeautyy, responded that she was the victim. She later deactivated her Twitter account.

(Letters have signatures, newspaper stories have bylines and tweets have account names, identifiers that may or may not be the true identities of the writers.)

Because of that uncertainty, Greg told me he feels "uneasy using tweets as sources." And so he, and all journalists, should. As a reader, I was uneasy with the Missourian's quote of an accusatory tweet in the Wednesday story. How could readers be sure the writer was who she claimed to be? City Editor Katherine Reed assured me that Missourian reporters were able to use the Twitter account, Facebook and phone number to identify the woman, an MU sophomore, before publishing her accusation.

Of course, the Missourian and nearly all news organizations have a policy of not revealing the names of victims of sexual assault. So Katherine said that on Wednesday morning, when editors got the Columbia police report and prepared to post it on the paper's website, they were horrified to discover that the police had inadvertently left the woman's name in one or two places. Those were quickly redacted, along with Dixon's cellphone number, which had also been left in.

That police report isn't pleasant reading. It suggests the problems a prosecutor might have and the possible grounds for further action by the university.

As one of its goals, the Missourian aims to reflect the community's conversation as well as the staff's work. In this case, the paper has published and posted only a selected fraction of the extensive chatter that continues on Twitter. Much of that chatter is pretty ugly, with most of the ugliness directed at the young woman.

The public conversation about this tragedy has been far from civil. Journalists can't and shouldn't ignore that conversation, but we don't have to amplify it.

Twitter can be, as it was in this case, a source for journalists. It can't be a substitute for real journalism.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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