media update’s Nikita Geldenhuys asked a number of universities what social media training they offer as part of their Journalism and Communication degrees. They shared why they believe training students on social media best practices is no longer optional, but a must if their students are to make a success of their journalism careers.

Below are five reasons why social media training is a must for journalism students:

1. Social media is more than just a clickbait platform

Social media is the perfect platform for disseminating the stories journalists write. However, sharing those stories in a way that attracts audiences – without amounting to clickbait – is hard.

For this reason, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) courses integrate social media into a range of courses, including narrative branding and multimedia production, to extend social media beyond producing short-lived “clickbait”. Instead, these courses teach students to build readers’ long-term engagement through storytelling.

“At the Centre for Film and Media Studies, social media practice, research, and analytics are integrated throughout both the Media and Writing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and focused in the Multimedia Production streams in the Film and Media Production Programme,” says Herman Wasserman, professor of Media Studies and director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at UCT.

The Multimedia Production stream in the three-year Film and Media Production Programme gives students experience of social media use. It also integrates traditional journalistic values and ethics with newer skills such as real-time reporting through social media.

"We believe students’ social media repertoire must rest on a strong foundation in media ethics and law for practitioners,” says Prof Wasserman. “They also need to understand the opportunities and challenges, such as online hate and harassment, of engagement through participatory culture. They also need to have strong social awareness and an understanding of inequalities and digital exclusion in South Africa.”

Marion Walton, associate professor in the Centre for Film and Media Studies, adds: "Unfortunately, communicative roles are often undervalued and increasingly underpaid.” Consequently, UCT provides students with a foundation in numeracy, coding, and data literacy, which can build careers in social media analytics and research.

2. Social media forms a vital part of the newsroom

The BA Honours Journalism course at Stellenbosch University covers social media extensively as part of a full-year module on digital journalism. Students learn how to use social media to distribute links to news articles.

“They also learn how to use social media to report on breaking news events, distribute images about news events, and gather information about news events,” says Andre Gouws, a lecturer in the university’s Journalism Department. “All of this is to prepare them for work in real newsrooms, where social media is an integral part of the news process.”

In Gouws’ experience, students already know how to use social media but need guidance on how to use it in a news environment. They also need to know how to be ethical, how to follow newsroom policy, how their personal social media use will affect on their professional social media use, and how to access information that is relevant.

3. Verification is vital

Social media can be a rich source for information for journalists, but verification is a necessity. “In this age of fake news, it is important to be able to check the reliability of what can be found online,” says Franz Kruger, a professor in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

At Wits, social media is integrated into the full-time Journalism Honours programme. “We regard social media as very important. This includes a number of aspects, including the use of social media as a source – which also means they need to learn techniques of verifying information found online.”

The programme also includes information on the use of social media for reporting, which has become an important channel for reporting live from events such as court cases and protests, says Prof Kruger.

“The South African media do indeed need to ensure they integrate social media into their operations in these various ways, as audiences are increasingly accessing – and sometimes publishing – information on these platforms.”

4. Social media is where many audiences live

If marketers, writers, and communications professionals do not consider social media as part of the marketing mix, they will lose touch with their audiences. This is according to Dr Thalyta Swanepoel, a senior lecturer in Journalism at the School of Communication Studies at the North-West University’s (NWU) Potchefstroom campus.

“Social media has become an intrinsic part of people’s lives. This is where they hang out, air their – sometimes uncalled for – views, share, and keep in touch. In communication, audience engagement is huge, with an emphasis on ‘meeting your audience members where they are’.”

The communication disciplines taught at NWU’s three campuses broadly include journalism, corporate communication, communication for social change, and video documentary. Social media features in practical and theoretical sections of the foundational communication course, as well as in specialised courses.

Dr Swanepoel explains the Journalism Honours degree has a strong focus on digital media, including social media as a marketing tool for freelance journalists especially.

Social media training also helps protect students, as Dr Swanepoel notes: “Social media now has legal complications and you are also bound to institutional guidelines where this is concerned. To send an ignorant student into this world is doing a disservice to that person.”

5. Social media offers crowdsourcing opportunities

Social media is woven throughout the course in both practice and theory at Rhodes University’ School of Journalism and Media Studies. From their first year, students are taught the ins and outs of social media, including how to join conversations and crowdsource information.

For Kayla Roux, digital media lecturer at the university’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, the social media component of the course is incredibly important. “If we do not train our journalists to use social media properly, they are missing out on the opportunity to talk to and with the majority of South Africans, and isn't this one of the main goals of journalism?” she asks.

The university’s journalism students keep up to date with social media theory, law, and ethics. They are expected to use social media throughout their degrees to find story ideas, tap into local conversations, and promote their work.

Without education on how to use social media, journalists could end up driving away audiences. They can also land themselves in hot water if they don’t know the ethical implications of using social media to spread the news. South Africa’s media industry stands to lose out if new journalists are not properly trained on using this medium.

Social media training is just as important for the marketers of tomorrow. Find out where to skill up in our article, Social media training for marketers in South Africa.