In an introduction to media writing class I teach at the University of New Mexico, we had the chance to talk Tuesday morning about the role of social media in the coverage of the Boston bombings.

Following up on a lecture I gave two weeks ago about how journalists use social media, I touched on how Twitter, Facebook and Storify played major roles in how people learned about Monday’s tragedy. 

I asked students if any of them had waited to read about the bombings in this morning’s paper. No hands went up.

Had anyone waited until the 5, 6 or 10 o’clock news to learn of the events? A few hands.

Did anyone hear about it on social media? Many more hands. Students mentioned Facebook and Twitter as their sources of information.

I showed examples of Storify curations about the explosions done by papers small and large, and I displayed my Tweetdeck column with the updates to the Boston Marathon hashtag flying by.

I pulled up a Vine video of the moment of one of the bombings that had gone viral, so students could see how anybody with a cell phone could become a “journalist” in a moment’s notice. I pointed out a Youtube channel of videos of all kinds — from all kinds of people — from the event.

As a grad student in the Digital Journalism and Design program at the University of South Florida, I find all of this very interesting, on so many levels. That’s a whole other blog post.

But what I found even more interesting were the questions my students had about all of this. These mostly freshman journalism students just starting their study of reporting asked questions about digital tools that journalism education leaders need to know.

(I think I answered all of them, but I mentioned that a few of the topics didn’t always have clear answers and could be the subject of whole semesters of study.)

Some of the questions were about the proper or ethical use of social media information posted by others. 
One student wanted to know if the media or just anyone can take a social media post — whether it be text, photo or video — and reuse it?

Another wanted to know if retweeting something libelous could get the individual passing on the bad info in legal trouble.

A few questions had to do with the mechanics of using social media. Who creates or chooses a hashtag for a big event? Can just anyone do that?

Another asked about who manages curations like those on Storify. Does anyone edit that work?

A tangential topic had to do with how television news was presented, and a student asked why an NBC reporter mentioned the nationality of a person of interest in the case. A discussion ensued about needing to fill up air time in a 24-hour news cycle — a topic for another day.

The bombings also made me think about what skills journalism and media students need to know to get a job and stay employed these days. Yes, it’s (deadline) writing and reporting and critical thinking. Yes, it’s photography and videography and audio. And it’s how to make graphs, maps and charts.

But the role of digital tools and social media can’t be overlooked.

Students need to know the basics of social media hashtags to be able to join in a conversation about an event, or at least read and learn from it. They need to understand how to sort through social media posts for true information and leads for other information.

Students need to know how to shoot decent photos and videos with a smart phone. They must be able to edit and upload them  from the scene. Knowledge of other equipment such as DSLRs, video and audio equipment is even better, but many students these days will only ever use a cell phone as a reporting tool.

Students need to understand other technology used in a major event like this, such as the Google people finder that was set up to connect runners with family members, or alternative blog sites that were set up when the Boston Globe site went down.

It also might help students who are interested in the developer side of news to understand the advantages and the limitations of mobile information. During our discussion on how students got the news, one asked about designing a mobile news website vs a native phone app — a key distinction to think about for big stories that have large photo galleries or video files.

As they learn information gathering skills, students need to figure out what to do with all the reporting they gather on their mobile phones in case cell phone service slows to a crawl or is cut off. That’s where the old fashioned approaches to journalism come in as handy as ever.

I could add more skills to this list, such as creating heat maps with Twitter data of the locations of most of the tweets about the marathon. Other data visualization and informational graphics abilities are also a plus.

Along with other lessons from the event, I hope the Boston bombings help journalism professors rethink how we teach journalism students to prepare to be the reporters on the scene of the next big news event.