February 8, 2013

Facebook pages are springing up in support of Christopher Jordan Dorner, the former Los Angeles cop now wanted for three murders and the subject of a massive manhunt in California. They raise interesting challenges as journalists in Southern California try to uphold their obligations in a climate of fear.

It looks as though Facebook has removed Dorner’s original page, which the L.A. Times has captured. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes declined to comment, because it is part of an ongoing investigation. But he sent me this note:

We don’t comment on ongoing investigations. If it’s helpful, here’s a bit more information about our law enforcement relationships:

We work with law enforcement to the extent required by law, and as needed to keep the site and those who use it safe. We always seek to respond promptly to requests when we deem there’s an immediate risk to the safety of any our users. Facebook devotes significant resources evaluating requests for user information, and adheres to the letter of these laws when responding to requests for information.

It’s impossible to see who is behind the dozens of support pages that have popped up. Most of them appear to be venting spots for people with gripes against law enforcement, like this one, which was created Thursday and has more than 1,800 likes as of 5 p.m. today.

Speech like this puts the owners of such platforms in an interesting spot, as well as journalists who must decide if and how to acknowledge it. Many of the comments are disturbing, especially while Dorner is still on the loose. But they fall far short of being threatening, inciting violence or causing other imminent harm.

When it comes to publishing or linking to content like this on social media, journalists have to root their questions in the value the information brings to the communities they serve.

It’s important that journalists frame the question as an open ended one. Not: Should I publish information from these sites? Instead, How should I publish this information in a way that serves my audience?

The Facebook pages are out there, as are numerous discussion groups. While some of the blogs and commentary on the sites may sound like crazy paranoid rantings, after the shooting of two innocent women by police Thursday morning, some people were turning to the sites to have their concerns heard. Hip Hop blogger Davey D offered a lengthy examination of the journalist’s role in this manhunt.  As a journalist, you have to help your audience sort through the noise on this and serve as a watchdog on law enforcement.

That’s a hard balance to strike when people are living in fear. But it’s an important part of modern journalism, that operates within many communities all experiencing the public safety threat in different ways.

I like the way CNN handles the claim that Dorner was railroaded.  And I like the way the L.A. Times handled the Facebook material.

Although there were many stories documenting the accidental shooting, outside of bloggers and the discussion forums, we have yet to see tough questions asked of the LAPD for the way they are conducting the manhunt.

Related: News orgs publish renegade cop’s manifesto

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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