April 11, 2012

It’s not uncommon for readers to object after a newspaper decides to publish or withhold sensitive information — public employee salaries, sexual abuse allegations or an underage victim’s name.

But an exchange on the Detroit Free Press’ Facebook page shows how those decisions now can be shaped in advance by a public dialogue between the paper and its readers.

On Tuesday, the Free Press told its Facebook fans it would soon be posting audio of a grim 911 call in which a 17-year-old girl reports that her ex-boyfriend killed her current boyfriend with an ax, then shot himself in the head. At the time, she did not know her mother had also been killed.

There are several journalistic questions: Was the 911 audio sensationalistic, or valuable reporting? Does a teenage caller deserve more sensitive treatment? Was it right to embed the audio on the news website’s homepage, rather than deeper in the site, so readers would not be confronted by it?

But for today we’ll focus on how the audience became part of the journalistic process.

The Free Press’ original post was followed by a series of critical comments from readers who could not understand why it would be necessary to post the recording, and who would even want to listen to it.

The Freep’s assistant managing editor for digital media, Stefanie Murray, responded quickly in the comments to explain the paper’s thinking: The audio “furthers the story,” she said, and other news outlets had already posted it.

Some of the original commenters argued that it shouldn’t matter whether others had posted the audio, and said the paper should be more sensitive in its promotion of the information. Murray continued to respond to the comments and explained how the paper makes these decisions.

Then some interesting notions emerged. One commenter suggested that the paper had an obligation to “respect the feedback from [its] audience” and not post the audio. Another said “we make the decisions.”

A couple readers came to the paper’s defense, arguing that anyone who didn’t like the decision could choose not to listen to the audio. The paper shouldn’t withhold potentially objectionable content, they said, as long as each reader can choose whether to view it.

In the end, the Free Press published the audio.

Although commenters did not dissuade the paper in this case, they might in another place and time. This process demonstrates how news decision-making is changing. Once the static product of isolated editors, it is now a public process with a two-way dialogue between journalists and the audience.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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