How the Detroit Free Press used Facebook to involve readers in a controversial publishing decision

It’s not uncommon for readers to object after a newspaper decides to publish or withhold sensitive information — public employee salaries, sexual abuse allegations or an underage victim’s name.

But an exchange on the Detroit Free Press’ Facebook page shows how those decisions now can be shaped in advance by a public dialogue between the paper and its readers.

On Tuesday, the Free Press told its Facebook fans it would soon be posting audio of a grim 911 call in which a 17-year-old girl reports that her ex-boyfriend killed her current boyfriend with an ax, then shot himself in the head. At the time, she did not know her mother had also been killed.

There are several journalistic questions: Was the 911 audio sensationalistic, or valuable reporting? Does a teenage caller deserve more sensitive treatment? Was it right to embed the audio on the news website’s homepage, rather than deeper in the site, so readers would not be confronted by it?

But for today we’ll focus on how the audience became part of the journalistic process.

The Free Press’ original post was followed by a series of critical comments from readers who could not understand why it would be necessary to post the recording, and who would even want to listen to it.

The Freep’s assistant managing editor for digital media, Stefanie Murray, responded quickly in the comments to explain the paper’s thinking: The audio “furthers the story,” she said, and other news outlets had already posted it.

Some of the original commenters argued that it shouldn’t matter whether others had posted the audio, and said the paper should be more sensitive in its promotion of the information. Murray continued to respond to the comments and explained how the paper makes these decisions.

Then some interesting notions emerged. One commenter suggested that the paper had an obligation to “respect the feedback from [its] audience” and not post the audio. Another said “we make the decisions.”

A couple readers came to the paper’s defense, arguing that anyone who didn’t like the decision could choose not to listen to the audio. The paper shouldn’t withhold potentially objectionable content, they said, as long as each reader can choose whether to view it.

In the end, the Free Press published the audio.

Although commenters did not dissuade the paper in this case, they might in another place and time. This process demonstrates how news decision-making is changing. Once the static product of isolated editors, it is now a public process with a two-way dialogue between journalists and the audience.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/markwsmith Mark W. Smith

    My work history definitely isn’t a secret. :) And it’s posted in its entirety on my Facebook page, linked here from these comments

    Although, to be clear, I loved Stefanie Murray long before the Free Press hired her. She gets the social web more than anyone I’ve ever met.

    Oh, and I never reported to her.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  • http://www.LinkedIn.com/in/wiebesick Chad Wiebesick

    It’s a sensitive topic but the Detroit Free Press has the freedom to post the audio and readers have the freedom to not listen. Sounds like Free Press took everyone’s Facebook comments in consideration and after careful deliberation, made their decision. 

  • Anonymous

    You would know since you’re one of her former employees. Unfortunately you left her on the Titanic, and the Paywall Iceberg is right ahead!

  • http://twitter.com/_carrrmen Carmen Bojanowski

    I don’t believe there was anything wrong with publishing it.  911 calls are heard on the news all of the time, usually without warning.  The call was published online, where people had a choice to listen to it or not.  I wouldn’t want to hear it, but some people might think it furthers the story.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Lee/100003504066701 Jim Lee

    I agree that it is good the way the paper engaged the audience, but I’m not sure if the audience actually influenced their decision in any way, or if they just used social media as a way to explain to readers how they came about making their decision. Explaining our decision-making process to readers — whether they ultimately agree with the decision or not — holds a lot of value too.

  • http://twitter.com/CisionNavigator Gina Goodman

    I think this is an awesome example of a news org engaging with its readers. Really interesting to see how it was handled, and what decision was ultimately made. 

  • Anonymous

    No disclosure Mark? Seems to me you have a bias. ;-)

    Though I agree and think Stefanie Murry handled the situation well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/markwsmith Mark W. Smith

    Stefanie Murray is the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/markwsmith Mark W. Smith

    Stefanie Murray is the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/markwsmith Mark W. Smith

    Stefanie Murray is the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001832526410 Scot Heisel

    I do appreciate the conversation. I also commend The Freep for the decision to publish. I don’t understand this notion that if I don’t want to read (or hear) something, then no one else should either. The last thing we want is tough newsroom decisions being based on emotional, mob-rule comment threads. Remember, those readers who support your decisions are always less likely to speak up. 

  • http://twitter.com/ProducerMatthew Matthew Keys

    It’s good to see a news organization having a conversation with its readers via Facebook. There are far too many news organizations hiring social media pundits to talk about how social Is about having a conversation with readers and engagement and community and blah blah blah, and far too few organizations practicing what they preach.