Ethics and Legal Guide

WKU Student Publications Policy Manual






This ethics guide is based on the Associated Collegiate Press Model Code of Ethics for Student Journalists. The College Heights Herald and the Talisman also follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Both publications also incorporate as a standard the recommendations of The Associated Press Stylebook. Although most items reference the Herald, these policies also apply to the Talisman, Cherry Creative and Student Publications Advertising, even though those staffs may be affected less frequently.

Plagiarism of words, art or other

Plagiarism is prohibited and illegal if the material is copyright protected. For the purposes of this code, plagiarism is defined as the word-for-word duplication of another person’s writing and shall be limited to passages that contain distinctively personal thoughts, uniquely stylized phraseology or exclusive facts. A comparable prohibition applies to the use of graphics. Information obtained from a published work must be independently verified before it can be reported as a new, original story. This policy also forbids lifting verbatim paragraphs from any publication, wire service or another source without attribution, or pointing out that those sources were used in compiling the story. It is not necessary to attribute background information published previously in the Herald.

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Fabrication of any kind

The use of composite characters or imaginary situations or characters isn’t allowed in news, sports or feature stories. A columnist may, occasionally, use such an approach developing a piece, but it must be clear to the reader that the person or situation is fictional; any such use must be approved by the editor-in-chief and should be discussed with advisers.

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Plagiarism and fabrication – PENALTY

Plagiarism and fabrication are especially egregious acts against journalism. In the event of an allegation of either, the editor-in-chief shall immediately suspend the person accused and convene an inquiry board to investigate the allegation. The inquiry board shall consist of the editor-in-chief, the managing editor and one other student staff member not associated with the incident. The publication’s adviser and the Director of Student Publications will be available to consult with and assist the panel in its inquiry. If a majority of the student panel concludes that an act of fabrication or intentional plagiarism occurred, the staff member responsible shall be dismissed from the publication and a full and public disclosure of the act will be made. Once such a finding has been made, the student responsible shall not be permitted to return to WKU Student Publications.

Endorsed by the College Heights Herald editorial board, Jan. 29, 2013; Endorsed by the Talisman editorial board, Feb. 5, 2013

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Covering Sensitive Stories


From The Associated Press Stylebook:

Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive.

Suicide stories, when published, should not go into detail on methods used. Suicide prevention experts believe, based on experience and some studies, that less said in the media about the methods of suicide, the less likelihood that the death will prompt at-risk people from taking their lives by that same method in the days immediately after.

If police or family members announce publicly the method of suicide, it is acceptable to describe the method. But do not specify the method in the headline or lede, and do not go into specific details, such as the type of gun used.

If the method is not initially announced but becomes public in later days, put that detail lower in the story or consider whether a story is necessary at all.

Often, it may not be necessary to say anything other than the person died by suicide.

Avoid using the phrase committed suicide. Alternate phrases include took their own life or died by suicide. The verb commit with suicide can imply a criminal act. Laws against suicide have been repealed in the United States and many other places.

Notes or letters are another area for caution. Generally avoid reporting the contents.

— — —

When a suicide occurs involving a student or other person in the WKU community, on campus or off campus, there must be discussion among at least two members of the publication’s editorial board as to what, if anything, is appropriate to report. Editors and reporters are strongly encouraged to seek advice from advisers and/or experts on suicide in the process of decision-making. 

The AP Stylebook provides sound guidelines to consider in making those decisions. It is also essential to consider the call of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to “minimize harm” – especially to the family and friends of the deceased but also in deference to the evidence that calling attention to suicide can lead others to self-harm.

While a potential story about a suicide should be thoroughly reported, if the decision is made to publish a story, only the most essential details should be published.

In the event the decision is made to publish, any story about a suicide should include a list of resources and contact information for those experiencing a mental-health crisis.


While suicides pose an ethical quandary in covering news, instances are plenty where it is good practice for student journalists to seek out advice. Such instances include high profile news events such as violence on campus, political disagreements or turmoil, investigations of wrongdoing, coverage of a controversial topic or myriad other stories that are sensitive in nature.

While all news stories should be handled with care, a potentially sensitive story must be thoroughly reported and edited with extra attention. Where appropriate, discussions should take place among the editors and reporters involved and among members of the editorial board, as needed. 

In those instances, editors and reporters are strongly encouraged to seek advice from advisers and/or experts on the topic at hand in the process of decision-making. Your advisers have extensive backgrounds in professional newsrooms as well as in the student newsroom and are here to be a resource for you, especially in difficult situations.

For all coverage, including breaking news stories, this policy acknowledges as best practice that it is more important to do things right than it is to do things quickly.

Endorsed by the College Heights Herald editorial board, Feb. 14, 2024; Endorsed by the Talisman editorial board, Feb. 14, 2024

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Working for other media

A staff member’s primary responsibility and obligation is with the College Heights Herald or the Talisman. Approval of work for an off-campus medium and/or any freelance work must be sought from the editor-in-chief in advance of the commitment. It is permissible only in noncompetitive media, on a staffer’s own time and should not conflict with the staffer’s obligations to the Herald or the Talisman. The Herald and the Talisman deserve your best work. The rule of thumb is to check with the editor-in-chief before agreeing to do anything.

Here are some guidelines. If you are asked by the Courier Journal to cover a meeting of the Faculty Senate here, for example, you will either cover it for the Courier Journal or the Herald — not both. This applies to writers and photographers. If Faculty Senate is on your beat, your work must be for the Herald only.

If you end up covering a story that the Herald is also covering and you realize you have a piece of information that the Herald does not, you are obligated to tip the Herald. For example, you’re going to a regents meeting and you learn through an interview with university spokesman Jace Lux following the meeting that WKU is getting a $2 million grant from Corvette for the renovation of Parking Structure 1. The reporter who is writing the story about the meeting for the Herald doesn’t have that information. While you don’t have to turn over all you know, you are obligated to steer the reporter in the correct direction. You might say, “Call Jace Lux and ask him about Corvette and parking.”

If other media ask you to regularly work for them — again, check with your editor. If you cover facilities for the Herald and have the chance to cover high school football games on Friday nights for the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise, that’s probably not a problem.

If you are a Herald or Talisman staff photographer and the Bowling Green Daily News wants to employ you as a shooter, there are concerns to be addressed.

To avoid a conflict of interest, a staffer may not hold positions within the Office of Student Publications and any outside campus news, public information or public relations mediums or organizations, except in the case of a class requirement. In that case, notify the editor-in-chief.

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Other employment

Other employment must not conflict with the staffer’s first responsibilities to the publication. The staffer must report any other employment to the editor-in-chief to avoid conflicts of interest with assignments, other staff editorial or business responsibilities or influences or situations that would potentially harm our publication’s reputation.

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Membership in campus organizations

Student Publications does not want staff members to be chained to their workstations; we expect our staffers to take part in other campus activities. There are some guidelines concerning this, though:

1. Staff members are not prohibited from joining any other organization, but they should consider the consequences of their membership and avoid positions such as public relations chair or president. While staffers may be able to separate their work for Student Publications and other student organizations, the potential for readers to perceive a conflict of interest is there. To maintain the press as independent watchdog of the government, a staff member of our flagship publications, the Herald or the Talisman, may not be a member of the Student Government Association Executive Committee and preferably not a member of the SGA Senate.

2. Members of the editorial boards are asked to hold positions in no other non-journalism organizations. Check with the editor-in-chief if you believe your situation deserves an exception.

3. Your membership in certain organizations will affect what positions on staff you hold. Staffers may not cover a campus organization they belong to or participate in any editorial or business decisions regarding that organization. For example, a staff reporter who also happens to be a resident assistant will not cover the housing beat. The starting power forward for the Lady Toppers cannot cover the women’s basketball beat. Staffers should report their memberships to their supervising editor.

4. Consider your time commitments. Working at Student Publications is time consuming. And the longer you’re around and the higher position on staff you achieve, the more time the publication requires of your day.

5. The bottom line, again, is to check with your editor if you have a question about how joining an organization or being elected to a position in an organization would affect your status on the Herald or Talisman.

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Outside activities, including political

Political involvement, holding public office off-campus and service in community organizations should be considered carefully to avoid compromising personal integrity and that of the publication. The notion of a journalist as an independent observer and fact-finder is important to preserve. Staffers should conduct their personal lives in a manner that will not lead to conflicts of interest.

A staffer involved in specific political action should not be assigned to cover that involvement and must not attempt to influence coverage. When covering any kind of story where a staffer will be seen in the public eye, the staffer should not wear anything that would suggest affiliation with any political party. While working in Student Publications, no staffer may hold a position or membership with any politically motivated campus organization.

Staff members are strictly prohibited from using their positions with the College Heights Herald, the Talisman, Cherry Creative or Student Publications Advertising to support or protest any cause.

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To remain free of influence or obligation to report a story, the journalist should not accept free travel, accommodations or meals related to travel. For convenience, sports reporters may travel on team charters, but the publication should pay the cost of transportation and related expenses. The same pay-as-you-go policy should apply to non-sports reporting as well, including businesses and governments. Free travel and accommodations that are non-coverage related and which may be provided by a vendor may be accepted if the primary purpose is for education or training and is related to the fulfillment of an agreement or contract.


As a general rule, gifts should not be accepted. Sometimes sources – especially those for a feature story – feel compelled to give reporters a gift to thank them for doing a story about their business, their friend or so on. If the reporter takes the token of appreciation, it could be viewed as a compromise of ethics. If the reporter refuses, sources may feel belittled.

The only rule here is never let the source or anyone else believe that your receiving a gift from a source could affect your stories. If that means not accepting the gift, don’t accept it. If you do a feature story on a 99-year-old man who makes toothpick candle holders for shut-ins and he offers you one as a remembrance of him, don’t turn it down because it would compromise your ethical code.

But if you are reporting a story about a strip-bar that’s opening across the street from the Newman Center and when the owner shakes your hand after an interview you find $100 in your palm, that’s a different story. Somewhere between those two ludicrous examples, find a happy medium. And consult the editor-in-chief or your advisers anytime you are faced with this problem — no matter how clear-cut the answer seems to be.

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Free tickets, passes or discounts

Free tickets or passes may be accepted by staff members assigned to cover an event or by those attending for legitimate news purposes. Press facilities at those events may only be used by staff members who are assigned to cover the event. Free tickets or passes may be accepted by staff members for personal use only if tickets are available on the same complimentary basis to non-journalists. Reimbursement for tickets purchased to cover events will be made after receipts are attached to the appropriate forms.

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Ownership of products given for review

Any materials given to the publication for review become the property of the publication and not of any individual staff member.

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Relationships and coverage

Staffers must declare conflicts and avoid involvement in stories dealing with members of their families. Staff members must not cover — in words, photographs or artwork — or make news judgments about family members or persons with whom they have a financial, adversarial or close relationship.

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Use of alcoholic beverages while on assignment

No drinking of alcoholic beverages is permitted when on assignment. See Alcohol, Drug and Conduct Policy.

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Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is prohibited. Sexual harassment is: (verbal) suggestive comments, sexual innuendo, threats, insults, jokes about sex-specific traits, sexual propositions; (non-verbal) vulgar gestures, whistling, leering, suggestive or insulting noises; (physical) touching, pinching, brushing the body, coercing sexual intercourse, assault. This conduct can be called job-related harassment when submission is made implicitly or explicitly a condition of work-related assignments, compensation or other factors, and if such conduct interferes with the staffer’s performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment. Any harassment claim should be reported in writing to the editor-in-chief and adviser, who will report the concern to the WKU Title IX office for investigation. Regardless of university action, if harassment is confirmed, the guilty party will be subject to disciplinary action within Student Publications, up to an including dismissal. Staff meetings within each division that include a discussion of sexual harassment and working conditions is recommended at the start of each semester.

The College Heights Herald, the Talisman, Student Publications Advertising and Cherry Creative follow the university’s sexual harassment policy. All members of the Student Publications professional staff are considered “mandatory reporters” of sexual misconduct, and must report any allegations of sexual misconduct to the property university authorities for investigation.

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Electronically altered photos

Electronically altering the content of photos for news and general feature stories or as stand alone news and feature photos isn’t allowed. Content may be altered as a special effect for a limited number of features if the caption or credit line includes that fact and if an average reader would not mistake the photo for reality. Readers expect photos and stories to be truthful.

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Photo illustrations

Set-ups or posed scenes may be used if the average reader will not be misled or if the caption or credit line tells readers that the photo is a photo illustration.

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Use of photographs of victims of accidents, fires or natural disasters

Because photos have a tremendous impact on readers, the question of privacy versus the public’s right to know should be considered. The line between good and bad taste and reality and sensationalism is not always easy to draw. Care should be taken to maintain the dignity of the subject as much as possible without undermining the truth of the event.

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Reporting names, addresses of crime victims

Staffers need to know the state laws that govern the publication of the names of rape and sexual assault victims. Generally, the names of rape victims are not published; however there is a trend to ask rape victims to go public. This may be negotiated between the victim and the publication. It is particularly important to proceed with caution if the victim is a minor. Victims of non-sexual crimes may be identified but the publication has a responsibility to give some protection to the victim such as giving imprecise addresses. With the exception of major crimes, an arrested person is not named until charges are filed. The Herald does not name victims who report having phone calls or sexual assault.

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Cooperation with law enforcement, government, college administration

To be an effective watchdog on other agencies, a publication must remain independent. The publication should not take over any of the duties of any outside agency; cooperation or involvement in the work of these agencies should be restricted to what is required by law. Staffers should know any freedom of information, open meetings and shield laws that apply to their work. If a staffer thinks any public authority is interfering with the staffer’s functions as a journalist, the incident should be reported to the editor-in-chief.

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Scrutiny of a public person’s life

Conflicts exist between a person’s desire for privacy and the public good or the public’s right to know about a public person’s life. Persons who freely choose to become public celebrities or public servants should expect a greater level of scrutiny of their life than a private person – even a private person who suddenly is involved in a public situation. Staffers should make judgments based on the real news value of the situation, common sense and decency. Reporters and photographers should not badger a person who has made it clear that he or she does not want to be interviewed or photographed. One exception is those who are involved in criminal activity or in court. Publishing intimate details of a person’s life, such as their health or sexual activities, should be done with extreme care and only if the facts are important for the completeness of a story and reflect in a significant way upon the person’s public life.

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Profane, vulgar words, explicit sexual language

Any use of profane, vulgar or explicit language must be approved by the editor-in-chief and should be allowed only with good reason.

The primary audience of a college publication is adults. Although profane and vulgar words are a part of everyday conversation, they are not generally used in professional news organizations.

During the interview stage of news gathering, staffers will encounter interviewees who use words viewed as vulgar and profane. The staff may publish those words if the words are important to the reader’s understanding of the situation or if the words help establish the character of the interviewee. The staff may decide to limit references to prevent the vulgar or profane language from overshadowing other, more important facts of the story.

Profane and vulgar words are not acceptable for opinion writing. 

Though they may be vulgar or profane, individual words are not obscene. Explicit language — but not vulgar, street language — describing sexual activities and human body parts and functions should be used for accurate reporting of health stories and, in a more limited way, for sexual crime stories.

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Sexist language

Staffers will avoid sexist labels and descriptive language and replace them with neutral terms.

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Negative stereotyping

Staffers will take care in writing to avoid applying commonly thought but usually erroneous group stereotypes to individuals who are members of a particular group. Generalizations based upon stereotypes can be misleading and inaccurate. In a broader sense, writers and photographers should avoid more subtle stereotyping in their selection of interviewees and subjects of photographs. Some examples of negative stereotypes: unmarried, black, teenage welfare mothers; unemployed, alcohol-using Native Americans; overweight, long-haired, white biker outlaws; limp-wristed, effeminate gays; inarticulate, dumb, blonde women.

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Use of racial, ethnic or other group identifiers

Identification of a person as a member of any population group should be limited to those cases when that membership is essential for the reader’s complete understanding of the story; even then, it should be done with great care so as not to perpetuate negative group stereotyping. When identifiers are used, it is important that the correct one be used. Some examples of identifiers: Hispanic, Jew, lesbian, person with AIDS, physically challenged, hearing impaired. According to the AP Stylebook, the preferred term is Black, capitalized after a 2020 update to the Stylebook. Under that update, white (not capitalized) is the term for caucasian. Use African-American only in quotations or the names of organizations or if individuals describe themselves so.

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False identity, stolen documents, concealed recording, eavesdropping

In the ordinary course of reporting, no staffers shall misrepresent themselves as anything other than representatives of the publication. In extraordinary circumstances, when an editor-in-chief judges that the information cannot be obtained in any other way and the value of that information to the readers is important, the editor may authorize a misrepresentation. Staffers may not steal or knowingly receive stolen materials. Except in situations judged by an editor as extraordinary, a staffer shall not record an interview or meeting without the interviewee’s permission or the obvious placement of a recording device (not hidden) at the start of the interview or meeting in which case the interviewee or news makers do not object and are aware of the presence of the recording device. Committing an illegal act to eavesdrop on a source is not allowed. State laws on the use of recording devices should be checked.

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Granting and preserving confidentiality to sources

A reporter should not promise confidentiality to a source without the permission of the editor-in-chief.

Confidentiality may be given if there is a real danger that physical, emotional or financial harm will come to the source if his or her name were revealed. The editor should have all the facts and must know the source’s full identity before the decision is made. The editor should know of any laws pertaining to confidentiality and disclosure before a decision is made. A reporter should make every attempt to get the same information from another source that agrees to be named since the goal is to attribute all information to a specific source for all stories.

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Anonymous sources

Generally, anonymous sources are not used in stories. Information that comes from an unnamed or unknown source should not be used unless it can be verified through another, known source. If two independent sources verify the information and both are unnamed, an editor may decide to publish the information with careful consideration of the need for immediacy and the news value of the information. The source may be identified generally as one associated with an agency to give some degree of credibility to the information. The danger exists that the reader may not believe the information if sources are not given; the publication’s credibility may suffer; information obtained later from a named source and verified may disprove the information given by the unnamed or unknown sources.

Proprietary information

Staff members in any area of Student Publications are prohibited from publicly sharing information they learn of through their association with Student Publications until that information has been published.


Staff members involved in coverage of WKU Athletics are prohibited from placing bets that in any way involve WKU Athletics or its conference.


Don’t talk about stories that are in the works — in your classes, in your dorm floor meetings or even with your mom. Stories can be blown or damaged if the wrong people hear about them. If you see a story down on the page at production night, don’t go back and tell everyone in your dorm about this great story that’s going to be in the Herald tomorrow. A lot can happen to a story five minutes before the paper is rolled — even five minutes after it is sent to the printer.

Never promise or even let sources think a story or photograph is definitely going to appear in any of our publications. If the story is scrapped or other stories bump it, you and the editor are put into an embarrassing situation.

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Requests for removal of news content from digital databases

The widespread use of search engines has resulted in a significant increase in requests — or, often, demands — that news organizations remove news items from databases that are scanned by public search engines. The decision to remove any news content from a digital database of the College Heights Herald, the Talisman,, or any other platform is at the discretion of the publication’s editor-in-chief.

While the decision rests with the editor, journalistic best practices, as outlined by the Student Press Law Center and other media attorneys, strongly recommend that factually accurate items should not be removed or “unpublished” (particularly since cached versions will remain). Doing so on a case-by-case basis poses the potential for legal problems if any series of decisions could be considered arbitrary or preferential — in other words, an item was removed at the request of one person, while a different person’s request for removal of a different item was denied.

An alternative can be offered, at the editor’s discretion, to append an Editor’s Note to the item that updates the dispensation of the case, as long as that dispensation is verified and documented independently of the person making the request. For example, a Crime Report item on a drunken driving arrest could have the following note appended to the end: Editor’s note: The charge of driving under the influence against Sally Student was amended to public intoxication, to which Student pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 20 hours of community service. Or Editor’s note: Sally Student was found not guilty of driving under the influence at trial.

Great care should be taken to ensure the appended material is accurate, since changing the article could constitute a new publication of that article.

In any case, having a policy that is administered consistently is of utmost importance.


Removing any news item from databases of the College Heights Herald or the Talisman without permission of the publication’s editor-in-chief, or removing an item to benefit one’s self, one’s friends or associations, is unethical behavior and will have consequences.

Any member of the staffs of the College Heights Herald, Talisman, Cherry Creative or Student Publications Advertising, or any other WKU Student Publications enterprise, who removes a news item from a publication’s database without the specific permission of the publication’s editor-in-chief will be permanently denied access to computers and networks at WKU Student Publications, with that individual electronically blocked from logging into those computers or databases.

Further, the staff member also may face disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, at the discretion of the publication’s editor-in-chief.

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SOCIAL MEDIA: Best practices

For journalists, social media are tools, not toys.

Traditional standards for accuracy, ethics and professionalism fully apply online.

■ You’re a journalist 24/7.

■ There is no distinction between a personal and a professional account. While it’s fine to maintain a separate account for work-related matters, remember that any account that bears your name is representative of you and your publication.

■ Be careful about offering opinions and taking stands in personal posts. They can haunt you.

■ Expressions of partisanship are unacceptable. You know about putting political bumper stickers on your car, right? Same principle.

■ When using social media to gather news, make sure you identify yourself as a journalist.

■ Before you press the button, make sure your facts are right – and, also important, that your post is free of spelling and grammar issues. Errors reflect badly on you, and on all of us.

Break news on the website, then on social media.

■ It’s important to be fast, but it’s far more important to be accurate.

■ Post breaking news on – even if it’s just a sentence.

■ Use a brief social media posts to link to the story.

■ Update the website post quickly as a breaking news event develops.

■ Follow up major developments with posts linking back to the updated story.

Assume everything you write online will become public.

■ Be aware of perceptions.

■ Communicate and politely debate people in social media, but know when to just let it go.

Use social media to engage with readers, but always be professional.

■ Watch your mouth. Do not use language that could be construed to be libelous, discriminatory, indecent, profane or offensive. Not even if you think you’re being funny. Especially if you think you’re being funny.

Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.

■ Verify, verify, verify if you think you’re about to post something that’s significant news. Cautionary tales abound from journalists who caused unnecessary panic with their tweets or posts. People will believe what you say. Information – right or wrong – can spread faster than you can blink your eyes.

■ Be careful whom you repost. Do you reasonably trust them? Really?

■ Always look at what you link. If you include a link – or repost someone else’s link – look at it first to make sure you trust it and that its association with your name wouldn’t embarrass you or WKU Student Publications.

If you make a mistake…

■ Acknowledge your error and correct it promptly. Leave the erroneous post up as a show of

transparency to your audience.

■ Deleting a tweet or Facebook post does not erase it. Everything posted online lives on forever in a cache somewhere. Everything.

Get it first, get it right, get it out!

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