October 21, 2009

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:

“The day after they found the body of a woman burned in the trunk of a car on the Skyway, we ‘the media’ converged on a Lakeland home. We waited for officials to ID the body. We all knew who she was, but we had to wait.

“Enter Facebook.
“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:

‘Can anyone tell me what’s going on with Sheryl? I’m receiving these e-mails from reporters and from what I’m reading on her wall something tragic has happened. If anyone could let me know, it would be greatly appreciated.’
“This same story was relayed to me by a close family friend who could not believe how insensitive the ‘media’ acted.

“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.

“Any thoughts?”

I presented the scenario to several of my colleagues.  Here are their edited responses:

Butch Ward, Poynter managing director

“[Just because they are on Facebook,] there is no guarantee they are truly friends. When using information that social networking ‘friends’ give you, it would be wrong to characterize them as ‘friends’ unless you verify the information and relationship, the same as you would if you get the information from a phone tipster. It is possible to insert yourself on a Facebook friend page and know nothing about the person.

“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

“I would say that contacting someone via Facebook is the equivalent of leaving someone a voice mail message. You identify yourself and ask them to contact you about a story you’re working on. You wouldn’t leave a message telling someone their friend was dead (I would hope!) so you shouldn’t send them an e-mail, or a Facebook message, that does the same thing. Then, when you talk to them, by phone or in person, you need to be sensitive about the fact that you may be breaking the news to them. In fact, I think you should start the discussion very, very carefully, and be sensitive to what they do or don’t know.

“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

“It’s one thing for a reporter to get a tip about a person who is about to be arrested, or a tip about someone about to win a Pulitzer Prize, or about a woman who has two husbands. Death changes the equation. Death almost always drives us into a separate category of ethics.

“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

“This is pretty much just like the Virginia Tech situation — WashingtonPost.com got lots of information from Facebook and had figured out victims’ names before the cops had released them to the public. They did not ‘break the seal,’ so to speak, by talking to family, relatives or anyone before the cops had released the names.

“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.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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