Newtown response shows perils of requesting interviews on Twitter

Any journalist who’s had to ask grieving loved ones for an interview in the wake of a tragedy will tell you, it’s one of the hardest parts of her job.

It’s also one of the most difficult requests for non-journalists to understand.

In such uncomfortable situations, we often seek comfort in rules and guidelines that may tell us how to act. But each tragedy is unique, and the people and emotions involved are never the same.

There are no rules to save you. In the end there are just two human beings — a journalist and a potential source — trying to figure out what feels right.

Sometimes, people welcome journalists. They value the chance to share their stories and grief with the community, that others may remember the victim’s life, feel the loss and do what little they can to help.

But other times, they don’t. The emotions are too overwhelming. The facts still too uncertain. The pain too unbearable to share. The conversation ends with a slam — a door in your face, or a phone hanging up.

That’s always been true. But the arrival of social media is new.

While social networks have made it easier for journalists to find and contact potential sources, it’s also made the hardest part of the job even harder. Those delicate interactions, what used to be just two humans figuring out what feels right, often occur over the cold distance of electronic communication and in full view of the public.

Look, for example, at what happened to ABC News editorial producer Nadine Shubailat on Friday when she reached out to a man who tweeted that he had a friend with a daughter in kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a deadly shooting had just occurred.

A vulgar response, and not an easy one to hear. But frankly not that much worse than any old door-in-the-face experience a journalist might be used to.

What is different, though, is the dozens of other tweets and pile-on-criticism that followed. There was a backlash from some people who saw the tweet, and the conservative website Daily Caller stirred up widespread outrage with a post about it. Shubailat eventually deleted her Twitter account.

New York Times metro reporter Sam Dolnick faced similar blowback from this tweet he sent in response to a woman who posted a photo of her cousin, one of the shooting victims.

What’s new here isn’t what the reporters do, it’s how they do it.

“Out in the open,” from a distance and condensed into 140 characters is not the most sensitive way to handle a sensitive situation.

It’s not just the publicness of social media that’s complicating things. When journalists attempt these types of interviews in person, they rely on a couple of other things that social media does not provide:

  • True empathy. There really is a difference between being a quote-hungry vulture and an empathetic, respectful journalist. In person, a journalist demonstrates that empathy through a soft face and tone of voice, and by not rushing into things. On Twitter, you don’t get that option. You have 140 characters to 1) express condolences, 2) pivot to requesting an interview, and 3) provide contact information. There’s almost no way for that not to come across as curt, crass or insincere.
  • A sense of timing. At a crime or disaster scene, a journalist can read body language and visual cues sent by potential sources. You have a sense of whether a person at this moment is approachable, or too distraught or angry to talk. Online, you have no way to know if the timing of your outreach is particularly terrible.

None of this is to say journalists should stop reaching out to sources through social media. In-person or telephone contact is probably better in most cases, but often social media will be the only method available.

But we do have to keep in mind the new realities here as we move a difficult, sensitive process into public view and impersonal channels.

The outreach becomes harder to get right and messier when it goes wrong.

Related: After the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, my colleague Mallary Tenore offered some tips for approaching sources on Twitter

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  • Thuận Tiện

    But we do have to keep in mind the new realities here as we move a difficult, sensitive process into public view and impersonal channels.

    Like this

  • Robert Knilands

    Many of the younger people who have Twitter accounts routinely have 500+ followers. I am sure some of them are friends of friends of friends. So probably some of those people are “strangers,” but not for the reason described in this article.

    That’s why I am not sure the number of followers is relevant here.

  • Poindexter718

    I could see your point (I actually DO see your point, but would find it more compelling) if the woman had, say, 20 followers. But with 650+, she was already sharing her photo with strangers. And I don’t see how/why the libel standard of “public figure” applies to whether or not it is seemly to approach someone–regardless of the means of approach–for an interview.
    In the end, I guess we just disagree on this, but I appreciate the civil debate. –cheers

  • Robert Knilands

    How does it matter how many followers someone has? If it’s a public figure (look it up) with thousands of followers, then I could see your point. Here, no.

  • Poindexter718

    Oh, the temerity of asking!

  • Robert Knilands

    Not following that at all. People listening or watching news reports have little to no bearing on rude and lazy attempts to ambush people for information.

  • Robert Knilands

    Huh? The person posted a photo to followers, so that excuses the rude and lazy attempt to pump the person for information?

    And I doubt the parent “wanted to talk” right at that moment.

  • Robert Knilands

    I thought someone might provide a lecture about the use of Twitter, but I thought it would be from one of the “new wave” journalists.

    I was being sarcastical, Dave. I thought the 2nd paragraph would have clarified that. Not only do I agree with your post (except for your criticism of my post), but I also think journalists have misused Twitter for things other than this.

  • Dave Lucas

    @Robert Knilands You don’t understand twitter. These reporters were way out of line. What they did was like tapping into someone’s phone line, interrupting a call. Many people use twitter as if it were IM or an SMS. They don’t want their lives interrupted by outsiders.

  • Poindexter718

    It’s a bit incongruous to ding a journalist for asking someone who just posted a photo to 655 followers if they’d like to share their story further.
    And I might forgive the guy with the colorful vocabulary if he’d ran the idea by his acquaintance and that was the response–maybe the parent wanted to talk?

  • @amaaanda

    But yet so many pour over the television, and we want to see and read stories about what happened, and who the people were, and how we can memorialize them. Somehow the stories are supposed to materialize without anyone asking any questions. Journalists will live by their own morals, but as long as we’re consuming the media that they’re putting out, then who’s really to blame? You want information and stories, and they get it for you. Who are the ghouls, the people who are aching to watch the news stories, or the people creating them? I don’t see a difference.

  • Patrick Jean

    Don’t forget the backlash to the Tampa Bay Times and The Associated Press, which ran stories identifying the Newtown gunman’s grandmother as a winter resident in the Tampa Bay area and seeking comment from her by phone or in person.

    Despite the backlash, the stories remain up on’s (The Times, which wrote its own story) website and Facebook page, as well as those of (The Tampa Tribune) and TV’s Bay News 9, which picked up the AP story. Newsradio 970 WFLA had also posted the AP story on its Facebook page on Friday, but took it down Saturday after the backlash.

  • Shawn King

    “There are no rules to save you.”

    Here – let me help all your “journalists” out there with some easy rules to remember.

    Rule #1: Don’t do it. There’s no value in the interview and you just look like a ghoul.

    Rule #2: Refer to Rule #1.

    Simple, isn’t it?

  • Robert Knilands

    I am STUNNED that approaching sources via Twitter did not work. Stunned, I tell you. I know that we need the Poynter Institute to point this out to us.
    Sarcasm aside, anyone who did not see this coming years ago has been asleep. All one has to do is follow the feeds of some of the lazier journalists to see the daily pleas of “I’m doing a story on Xxxxxx. Can anyone tell me who I should talk to?”

  • bgilman45

    101 lesson of the day …. any time you feel you must approach folks
    for this type of interview …. and there better be a damn good reason
    … not just readers’ morbid curiosity …… you always say, “we just
    want to make available an avenue to you and your family to tell your
    story if you’d like to. If not, I totally understand. We just wanted to
    make the offer.”
    line …. your first obligation should be to provide comfort to the
    victims … not serve the morbid curiosity of the public.