December 17, 2012

Any journalist who’s had to ask grieving loved ones for an interview in the wake of a tragedy will tell you, it’s one of the hardest parts of her job.

It’s also one of the most difficult requests for non-journalists to understand.

In such uncomfortable situations, we often seek comfort in rules and guidelines that may tell us how to act. But each tragedy is unique, and the people and emotions involved are never the same.

There are no rules to save you. In the end there are just two human beings — a journalist and a potential source — trying to figure out what feels right.

Sometimes, people welcome journalists. They value the chance to share their stories and grief with the community, that others may remember the victim’s life, feel the loss and do what little they can to help.

But other times, they don’t. The emotions are too overwhelming. The facts still too uncertain. The pain too unbearable to share. The conversation ends with a slam — a door in your face, or a phone hanging up.

That’s always been true. But the arrival of social media is new.

While social networks have made it easier for journalists to find and contact potential sources, it’s also made the hardest part of the job even harder. Those delicate interactions, what used to be just two humans figuring out what feels right, often occur over the cold distance of electronic communication and in full view of the public.

Look, for example, at what happened to ABC News editorial producer Nadine Shubailat on Friday when she reached out to a man who tweeted that he had a friend with a daughter in kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a deadly shooting had just occurred.

A vulgar response, and not an easy one to hear. But frankly not that much worse than any old door-in-the-face experience a journalist might be used to.

What is different, though, is the dozens of other tweets and pile-on-criticism that followed. There was a backlash from some people who saw the tweet, and the conservative website Daily Caller stirred up widespread outrage with a post about it. Shubailat eventually deleted her Twitter account.

New York Times metro reporter Sam Dolnick faced similar blowback from this tweet he sent in response to a woman who posted a photo of her cousin, one of the shooting victims.

What’s new here isn’t what the reporters do, it’s how they do it.

“Out in the open,” from a distance and condensed into 140 characters is not the most sensitive way to handle a sensitive situation.

It’s not just the publicness of social media that’s complicating things. When journalists attempt these types of interviews in person, they rely on a couple of other things that social media does not provide:

  • True empathy. There really is a difference between being a quote-hungry vulture and an empathetic, respectful journalist. In person, a journalist demonstrates that empathy through a soft face and tone of voice, and by not rushing into things. On Twitter, you don’t get that option. You have 140 characters to 1) express condolences, 2) pivot to requesting an interview, and 3) provide contact information. There’s almost no way for that not to come across as curt, crass or insincere.
  • A sense of timing. At a crime or disaster scene, a journalist can read body language and visual cues sent by potential sources. You have a sense of whether a person at this moment is approachable, or too distraught or angry to talk. Online, you have no way to know if the timing of your outreach is particularly terrible.

None of this is to say journalists should stop reaching out to sources through social media. In-person or telephone contact is probably better in most cases, but often social media will be the only method available.

But we do have to keep in mind the new realities here as we move a difficult, sensitive process into public view and impersonal channels.

The outreach becomes harder to get right and messier when it goes wrong.

Related: After the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, my colleague Mallary Tenore offered some tips for approaching sources on Twitter

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Jeff Sonderman ( 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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