Recently, a local photojournalist sent me an e-mail about how social networks such as Facebook are changing the way we cover spot news.
By way of background, this question has to do with a story here in Tampa Bay, where I live. A man set fire to his car before jumping to his death from the iconic Sunshine Skyway bridge. A woman’s body was in the trunk. Journalists quickly learned the woman was the man’s ex-wife. WFLA-TV Chief Photojournalist Paul Lamison wrote:
“I think all reporters went to the dead woman’s Facebook page to look at pictures and learn more about her. The issue or topic for thought is when a reporter started contacting the woman’s friends from Facebook.
“Remember, only some of her family and her closest friends knew the truth.
“Soon her Facebook page had this:
“This is an issue that will keep presenting itself again and again as the new world of social media continues to grow. Also, as reporters try to get the scoop and get the story posted first.
I presented the scenario to several of my colleagues. Here are their edited responses:
Butch Ward, Poynter managing director
“When we are working a story about a person who has died, such as the victim of a crime, and they have not been identified, what are the sensitivities that good reporters try to honor? I don’t want to be the one who tells somebody that a friend died.
“Facebook is virtual reality — so when you start calling up a ton of people who may have a relationship, you have to know they will start calling each other. They will be asking, ‘What happened to our friend?’ If you are comfortable with that, then go for it. If it makes you uncomfortable to think the family might find out from you that the person is a victim, be wary.”
Regina McCombs, Poynter faculty for virtual teaching
“As to what information they can use, I’d say none, without verification. It’s just as easy to lie on Facebook as anywhere else. Why would one platform be inherently more trustworthy than another? Even ‘friends’ can be the most casual of acquaintances, with little personal knowledge of the individual.”
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter vice president/senior scholar
“My inclination is to respect the protocol that says, ‘Let the official authorities contact the immediate family.’
“Once the family knows, then I have no problem. Contacting Facebook friends is just like using the telephone to call up someone who is close to the family. I have absolutely no inhibitions at all about using social networks in order to develop sources, in order to contact people for stories.
“I am a little more than squeamish about somehow not being transparent about who you are and what your interests are. You could come to someone’s ‘friend’ with an ulterior motive. If the standards and practices of the news organizations are to reveal who you are, that has to include contacts on a social network as well.”
Steve Myers, Poynter Online’s managing editor
“So the Post was ready to go, with a list of names of people who knew these victims, and as soon as the police released the names, they moved immediately to contact people who knew the victims.”