Why The Washington Post used Facebook updates to tell a mother’s story

Ian Shapira was intrigued when his wife showed him her colleague's Facebook status.

The Washington Post reporter has written before about the ways we use Facebook to share our personal stories, so when he saw that Shana Swers's status said she passed away on Halloween, he wanted to know more.

In scrolling through her profile, Shapira saw that Swers had posted dozens of updates about her pregnancy, the birth of her son Isaac, and the medical condition that led to her death soon after. Shapira wanted to write Swers's story the way he first experienced it -- through a series of Facebook updates.

Having never told a story this way before, Shapira wondered how effective it would be. What added value could he bring to the story, and how could he include his own voice as a reporter without overpowering Swers?

Relying on reporting to add meaning, context

Shapira and local enterprise editor Marc Fisher decided that in order for the story to work, the Facebook updates should be accompanied by reported annotations. The annotations would add context, Fisher told Shapira, and they would help fill in some of the gaps.

Shapira, who used Facebook to initially contact some of his sources, interviewed several of Swers's family members and friends who commented on her updates. He talked at length with Swers's husband Jeff, who posted the update about her death. It would have seemed insensitive, Shapira said, to publish a deceased person's updates without talking to the family first, especially considering Swers's updates could only be seen by her Facebook friends.

"When you're profiling a woman who has gone through a terrible situation, you don't want to do that without their permission. I would have felt like I was violating her privacy," said Shapira, noting that he tries to reach out to sources whenever he refers to information on their Facebook profiles.

Limitations of telling stories via Facebook updates

The annotations offer details about Swers's relationship with her husband and about what her doctor said during her final days. But even with the added details, there were still holes in the story. A few readers, Shapira said, wondered why he hadn't included more information about Swers's condition, peripartum cardiomyopathy. One of the annotations included a link to more information about the rare disorder, but did not fully explain it.

"Could we have had an article specifically on that? Sure, we could have done a lot more, but at the same time we didn't want to overdo it," said Shapira, who's on the Post's enterprise team. "We really wanted her Facebook page to speak for it on its own."

When talking with me about the story -- which was named one of the most innovative alternative news stories of the year -- my colleague Adam Hochberg said he appreciated the narrative experiment but was confused by the lack of context. In particular, he wanted more information about the people who commented on Swers's updates.

"If you ask readers to invest the time and effort to get to know this family, I think you also owe readers answers to obvious questions raised by the story," Hochberg told me by e-mail. "Perhaps a better way to do this would be to run the Facebook excerpts alongside a more conventional story that introduces the key characters, provides context and background, and answers important questions."

Shapira said he had considered doing something along these lines, but he didn't want to muffle Swers' voice and he thought readers would relate to the familiar format of the story.

"I was surprised by how much people were really moved by the unvarnished dialogue between [Swers] and her friends and family," Shapira said in response to reader feedback. "It showed the power of letting characters speak for themselves."

Shapira looked for ways to keep the piece from being weighed down by the dialogue. To make it easier for readers to follow, he only included updates and photos that he thought were most relevant. In some cases, he showed just a few comments or none at all so as not to derail the storyline of Swers's posts. Shapira and Fisher also edited some of the updates for length and worked with the Post's designers to create a more abbreviated version for the A1 print story, which ran earlier this month.

Finding the right fit for this approach

Fisher said in a phone interview that he would like to see the enterprise team tell more stories via Facebook updates, but both he and Shapira acknowledged that this approach isn't right for every story.

A story like this requires a level of selflessness on the writers' part, Fisher said. He pointed out that Shapira "had to give up not only what every writer wants to do -- create narrative -- but he had to do pretty much the same depth of reporting that he would do for a piece of his own."

When approaching a story this way, it also helps to have a compelling subject matter, Facebook updates that reflect a narrative, and sources who will provide you with enough information to write thoughtful annotations, Shapira said.

"You don't want the use of Facebook as a delivery system for stories to become a gimmick or something you do just because it looks cool," he said. "It really has to be organic to the story, and it has to be something where the method of telling the story is as revealing as the content of the story itself."

In this case, Shapira said, "we felt like it would emphasize the network of friends that she had, and perhaps more importantly it would emphasize how Facebook reflects the way we're communicating these days. This approach shows both the power of Facebook and also some of the gaps that exist in telling stories via status updates."

The experiment also highlighted a cultural change. "I think this kind of technology enables people to reach out in ways they otherwise couldn't. If this happened 10 years ago, maybe she and Jeff would have been much more alone in this process," Shapira said. "Her whole ordeal ended up in tragedy, but she ended up being a lot less isolated than she would have otherwise been."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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