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Sleeping Online, and a Social Media Journalist's Ideas about the Internet

Sleeping Online, and a Social Media Journalist's Ideas about the Internet

Picture of Angilee Shah

Last summer, Paul Balcerak slept on the Internet.

The 12-hour video is, forgive the pun, a bit of a yawn. But people actually watched it. Indeed, strange videos on the Internet are a great way to reach an audience of people who have trouble sleeping, which was the goal of the Swedish Medical Center's Sleep Medicine Associates in Seattle. Balcerak, then assistant editor in the new media division of community newspaper publisher Sound Publishing, explained why he participated in this social media experiment on his blog:

In the spirit of the fact that this is a social media project and I'm participating in it, I wanted to give it some (and I stress some) publicity by putting it on my blog. Besides that, I'm probably going to be Tweeting my observations anyway and I guess I just really don't care who knows I have (or don't have) sleep apnea. It's not like it's an embarrassing affliction or anything and besides that, I'm not the first guy to take his medical issues to the internet.

Look, I believe in social media because it's an interesting and practical way to connect with people who I wouldn't otherwise come into contact with. And if you haven't noticed, social media has the power to do real good. I realize we're not curing cancer here or anything, but if we can make social media work for this one thing, maybe it can scale for other (dare I say more serious) ailments, too. If you haven't noticed, social media is being integrated into your health care anyway.

It's not exactly journalism -- Balcerak wrote in an email to Career GPS, "If it was journalism, it was journalism in the sense that product reviews, like Consumer Reports, are: Here's my experience with this thing, which maybe you can use to inform yourself." -- but it does raise some interesting ideas for using the Internet and social media to tell stories.

[Find this week's health media opportunities at the end of this post, and keep up with Career GPS via RSS.]

Balcerak, who is now a web producer for KIRO 7 Eyewitness News in Seattle, answered questions by email about what he learned from his night online.

Paul Balcerak sleeps on the Internet
Paul Balcerak sleeps on the Internet

What did you learn about social media from participating in this study this way?

I didn't realize people used the internet and social media so much for personal medical purposes. I'm a pretty big social media nerd, and I don't really care about sharing my medical issues (obviously), but if there's something wrong with me, I just go to the doctor. We did a web chat and got a high volume of people asking questions that suggested they were genuinely trying to diagnose a problem. I found that interesting and potentially really useful because a lot of medical issues don't require a doctor's visit; people can be told to try this/try that, which in a lot of cases clears up a problem without a $25 copay (or whatever). I think it's a potentially great use of social media.

Were there any skills you could take to your life in the newsroom?

Making experts available to the general public for an open question-and-answer session is always a good idea. I honestly wouldn't have thought sleep apnea would be that popular a topic, but we had tens of thousands of people logging into the web chat and livestream to learn. That's crazy. Imagine how many people would love to learn about, say, America's budget woes from a Congressional budget expert. People who can communicate succinctly and effectively to the public -- and that should include journalists, too -- by answering questions on the fly are a huge resource.

What's the difference between a social media journalist and the just-regular type?

There's no distinction. A good journalist uses the right tools for the right job and maintains a social media presence so there's an audience of experts/community members/stakeholders/etc. who are readily available when the journalist needs them (a good journalist also makes sure that relationship goes both ways).

What is your best advice for health journalists who really want to integrate social media into their reporting process?

For starters, you have to be present. Don't just post to your Twitter feed when you're looking for help. Make yourself available to answer questions people may have and be a resource for them: Share interesting/helpful links, tell them which social media channels/people/etc. are the best ones to follow, tell them where you go when you're looking for information, etc. The other component is that you have to be present where your audience is present [link to a Fluent Self blog post debuking Twitter myths]. If you hate Twitter but the health community you cover is all over Twitter, suck it up and be there.

Second, find what's already out there. I guarantee there are already tons of health reporters and health experts using Facebook/Twitter/whatever. Invest some time in searching those places [link to a Mashable post about search on Twitter] for topics you report on and develop a rapport or relationship with those people (just like in person).

Lastly, don't use social media just for the sake of using social media; have a goal in mind about what you want to do and work toward that.

Do they have to spend a lot of time at their computers?

I suppose that depends on what you're trying to do. If your goal is to build up a weekly Twitter chat, then yeah, you're probably going to be spending a decent amount of time at your computer. If you set up a Facebook page as a sort of "public voicemail" or sounding board, you can probably just update it, check it and reply to people a few times a day.

Is it as worthwhile as reporting on the field or interviewing face-to-face or on the phone?

It cracks me up that some people think a Facebook/Twitter/e-mail quote is somehow less valuable than something you asked in person and wrote down the answer to (or recorded). When you're communicating via social media, you usually have a permalink to the exact thing that was said by your source. That's valuable to journalists and news consumers who may be looking for more context. The mentality seems to be that, the harder it is to track a quote down, the more reliable it is. That just baffles me.

If you contact someone through Twitter and they drop a good quote there, use it. What's the point in calling them and asking them the same question again?

As far as worth -- or value, you might also say -- I think social media might be more valuable than in person/over-the-phone interviews. I quote Twitter and Facebook followers on quite often, and I always include a link back to that person's Twitter or Facebook page (usually a direct link to the Tweet or Facebook post in question). That little reference is a huge deal to some people and they sometimes go and pass the link around to their friends -- it's like the 21st century version of clipping an article out of the newspaper and sticking it to your fridge. The difference is that everyone on earth can see your fridge and they can instantly stick it to their fridges, too, meaning the journalist has just created an opportunity for X amount of people to link back to his story. Besides driving web traffic, getting linked to builds search rank authority -- I'll forego the potentially 20,000-word SEO discussion -- which is really what a journalist's goal should be over time (that is, being the first thing in Google search results when someone searches, say, "health care Orange County").

Playing devil's advocate here, isn't there value to seeing a person's facial expressions and hearing their voice? Seeing their surroundings?

Oh, I agree with that completely. I don't think social media should replace phone/in person interviews or vice versa. There are advantages to both and I think a well-rounded reporter should have a good mix of everything in his/her repertoire.

Balcerak wrote more about his experience sleeping on the Internet after the conclusion of the study, including this perspective:

For all our heroic talk of journalism, there's one aspect we don't talk about enough: being an advocate for one's community. This is an arena a lot of us have shied away from, probably because of a (perceived or real) partisan split among news consumers and a genuine fear by the journalism community of being called biased (journalists fear that label as much as a normal person would fear "racist"). It's sad because where journalists and news organizations have failed to passionately embrace the issues within their communities, regular citizens have taken to blogs and filled in the cracks. Despite that, news organizations still hold a great deal of visibility, for the time being at least-possibly the only chip they have left.

More discussion of social media and reporting on the Internet from the Reporting on Health archives:

The Journalism Basics in SEO Techniques

So you're on Twitter and Facebook? What next?

The 7 Social Media Habits of Highly Effective Health Reporters

Health Media Opportunities

New Job and Internship Listings

Health Business Reporter, Atlantic Information Services, Inc. (via JournalismJobs)

Location: Washington, DC
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Healthcare & Social Media Internship, MedCity Media (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Cleveland, OH
Status: Part Time
Medium: Online, Print

Reporter/Producer - Health Unit, MacNeil / Lehrer Productions - PBS NewsHour (via Poynter)
Location: Arlington, VA
Status: Full Time, one year
Medium: Broadcast, Print

Health Desk Intern, American Public Media
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Status: Part Time
Medium: Broadcast

Health Research Analyst - Health IT, Northrop Grumman (via Simply Hired)
Location: Atlanta, GA
Status: Full Time
Medium: Other

Web Content Writer/Editor, Northrop Grumman (via Simply Hired)
Location: Atlanta, GA
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Fellowships and Grants

Rosalynn Carter Fellowships For Mental Health Journalism
Eligibility: Open to journalists with at least three years of experience and citizenship from United States, Romania or South Africa
Included: $10,000 stipends to report on mental health issues, mentorship to complete reporting project
Deadline: Apr. 18, 2011
From the Website: "Fellowships are tailored to suit the needs, interests, and experiences of each fellow. They also generate knowledge and information to benefit the mental health field and the public. When appropriate, the program requests that fellows conduct one training session related to mental health and journalism for their peers during the fellowship year."

National Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid six-day program in Los Angeles, $200 stipend and upon completion of what are expected to be ambitious, major fellowship projects.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "To stimulate collaboration between mainstream and ethnic media, we encourage applicants to propose a joint project for use by both media outlets. Up to two collaborators for each project may receive a stipend."

Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grants, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to all journalist members of Center for Health Journalism Digital. Print, broadcast and new media journalists from anywhere in the United States are eligible to apply, as are all past fellows of the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
Included: Provides funding for proposed stories or multimedia projects that illuminate or expose critical community health or community health policy issues and acceptance to the National Health Journalism Fellowship program.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "Proposals can focus on a specific health topic or delve into a confluence of circumstances and conditions that impact health, including environment; social class; crime and violence; urban development; access to health resources or the lack thereof; school absenteeism; transportation or city planning, and and disparities in health. Topics that would NOT be eligible would include clinical trials, medical research, or the latest treatments for a disease or any project involving a population outside of the United States."

Australian-American Health Policy Fellowship, The Commonwealth Fund
Eligibility: Mid-career health services researchers or practitioners who are U.S. citizens and have completed a master's degree or doctorate (or the equivalent thereof) in health services research, health administration, health policy, or a related discipline. Applicants should demonstrate expertise in health policy issues and track record of informing health policy through research, policy analysis, health services, or clinical leadership.
Deadline: August 15, 2011
From the Website: "This program offers a unique opportunity for outstanding, mid-career U.S. professionals-academics, government officials, clinical leaders, decision makers in managed care and other private health care organizations, and journalists-to spend up to 10 months in Australia conducting research and working with Australian health policy experts on issues relevant to both countries."

California Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media in California, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid seminars in Los Angeles, mentoring for completion of reporting project
Deadline: Aug. 26, 2011
From the Website: "During the Fellowship sessions, Fellows get plenty of time to discuss with experts, and with each other, strategies for covering health news with authority and sophistication. Between the two sessions and for three months after the second session, Fellows confer by phone and e-mail with veteran journalists who guide them through work on major Fellowship projects."

Educational Opportunities

Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2011, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: AHCJ members (apply via website)
Program: The workshop will take place June 3, 2011 and includes breakfast and lunch.
From the Website:"Even if your newsroom is in a bustling city, there are untold rural health stories down the road. So join us in St. Louis for this special one-day, no-fee workshop to help you find and cover health stories in rural America."

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