This week, as St. Petersburg, Fla., police were engaged in an all-day fatal gun battle with a fugitive, Tampa Bay news consumers had the entire spectrum of traditional and non-traditional sources of information at their disposal, including two newspapers, five television stations, a radio shock jock, his army of followers and a prolific sex worker on Twitter.
It was an object lesson in how citizens move along a continuum of information, seeking what they need from a variety of sources. These many sources sometimes complement each other. But also evident this week is that citizens, journalists and entertainers might start out with the same event, but they pursue different questions at different times.
The first shots were fired in a residential neighborhood in St. Petersburg close to 7:30 a.m. Monday. Class was about to start at a nearby middle school. Morning traffic was just picking up. Television stations and local newspaper websites reported bare bones details of the shootings and alerted people to the street closures and the school’s locked-door procedures.
But one of the first eyewitnesses who lives near the scene was a Twitter user with a handle that we can’t even repeat. Before Monday most of her tweets to her 5,800 followers were designed to generate business, like “Want to see me naked? I’m waiting for you.” But shortly after the first shots she switched her focus to her neighborhood, tweeting: “WOW he had one of them hostage… guns were blazing … to close to my home. The dude keeps shooting.as we speak… wow.” (Warning: This tweet and Twitter feed contain graphic sexual language and images.)
She sent out links to other sources, identified the shooter, his wife and his brother. Early on she questioned the police response: “The police know they have to many people out here! smdh!” Later she commented on the senselessness of the killings, “MAN this whole thing is PETTY and people out here dying for no reason!”
Across Tampa Bay, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem was hosting his radio show. A shock jock, Clem has had his share of negative attention from the FCC for a variety of on-air stunts including killing a wild boar, staging a skit involving cartoon characters discussing sex, and claiming a local TV personality had AIDS. When he worked for Clear Channel, his exploits prompted the FCC to propose a $755,000 fine against the station.
Clem now owns his own Internet company and fan site. He broadcasts over the Web through Radioio, a publicly-traded company controlled by Clem’s agent. The show is then purchased by local stations. Clem has a sizable fan base and a history of charity work with police organizations. When the bullets started flying on Monday morning, both constituencies worked in his favor. His fans made their way to the scene and became citizen reporters. (Here’s one dramatic example: “BTLS Show – Gunshots Heard Live On-Air 1-24-11.”)
Police officers also called in and Clem put them on the air, disguising their voices and concealing their identities.
By 9 a.m. Clem reported that two officers had died, two hours before police confirmed the deaths. He did not reveal their identities. It is not clear if all of their families had been notified yet. Clem was also the first to identify the suspect, Hydra Lacy, Jr. and detail his extensive history with law enforcement. Later in the week, one of the officer’s wives granted her first interview to Clem’s radio competitors, Todd Schnitt, better known as MJ from the “MJ Morning Show.”
Meanwhile more traditional newsrooms were offering up a broader array of coverage, including a view from the normally peaceful neighborhood, why the police tore the entire house down and whether they should rebuild it, and tributes to the officers.
It is here where the instincts of the journalists and the central purpose of journalism diverge from the rest of the pack, increasing the chance for misunderstanding or unfair comparisons. Journalists and citizens are sometimes heading toward the same questions at the same time, but often they keep different rhythms.
Some who had been following this situation were quick to criticize Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times for questioning the judgment of the fallen officers before they were buried. At the same time, judging by the comments, many readers appreciated the reporting, which widely quoted police experts from around the country.
Although others might claim that roles and responsibilities are getting muddier in this environment, I would argue that for professional journalists, their roles are becoming ever more clear.
Certainly they have to report what’s happening. But a lot of other people will do that too. The real role of journalists is to provide context and seek accountability.
When big stories happen, journalists and citizens all start in the same place, with an iterative unveiling of events. But their paths diverge quickly. Where some become activists or antagonists, journalists embrace the role of the complete storyteller.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story described a local woman as a prostitute; it now describes her as a sex worker.