Terrible news events in the social-media age have inspired eyewitness tweets, videos and Facebook postings. They’ve also inspired a secondary phenomenon: The news media’s nearly instant descent on anyone posting such accounts, in search of interviews.
So it was Thursday, when a gunman opened fire at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, killing at least nine and wounding seven before he was killed. Within moments of the first tweets from people in Roseburg came follow-up tweets from journalists seeking to speak to those who witnessed the rampage - and a backlash wave from people disgusted by the news media.
One such exchange attracted relatively broad attention and inspired a discussion - if such a civilized word can be applied to the angry comments - about the media’s proper role in such situations.
The exchange started when a young woman who goes by the Twitter handle @KP–Kayla Marie began live tweeting. “Omg there’s someone shooting on campus,” she tweeted at 12:41 p.m. EDT. This was followed moments later by, “Students are running everywhere. Holy god.”
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Reporters and TV producers quickly hustled to the scene, at least electronically. Kayla Marie was soon swamped by requests for interviews. “Can you DM 1 / 8direct message 3 / 8 when you find shelter,” tweeted NBC’s Emmanuelle Saliba to Kayla’s account (the tweet has been deleted). “I’m a reporter for NBC News.”
Saliba had plenty of company: Reporters from ABC News, MSNBC, “Inside Edition,” RadarOnline, MailOnline, Fox News, the BBC and two French news organizations all tweeted requests for interviews, too. Not one but three CNN journalists were seeking her as well.
The deluge unleashed a mountainous third wave - this one of revulsion, as people reading the journalists’ tweets reacted.
“Absolute human vultures,” tweeted one. “Sickening,” wrote another. This being Twitter, there were numerous unprintable denunciations.
Journalists say the public reaction may miss an important element: This is how news is gathered and how the public gets accurate information when news breaks. That is, the only way to separate fact from fiction in a news story is by going directly to the people involved.
Long before the advent of social media, reporters were knocking on doors and stopping strangers in the street to seek facts and comments. Often this involved approaching people who might only have recently experienced a tragedy. Social media now makes this process transparent; people can now “see” in real time the dirty work that reporters undertake.
“I understand why so many people are bothered” by seeing it, said Jason Silverstein, a breaking-news reporter for the New York Daily News. “You can’t be a reporter of, well, anything without doing lots of things that are perceived as rude. But what is the alternative?”
In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s shooting, Silverstein tweeted to four people who said they were at Umpqua Community College during the incident and asked for their accounts. He was quickly called out as “desperate” and worse on Twitter.
The derision, however, didn’t bother him. “I’m used to it by now, since I have to cover such events with unfortunate frequency,” he said, adding: “It’s our job. And it’s a job that needs to be done regardless of some tweets calling you a scumbag. Those are going to come no matter what you do anyway.”
At the same time, reporters need to be mindful of the harm that buttonholing possibly traumatized witnesses can cause, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
“If the point is to gather valuable eyewitness accounts consisting of facts that only somebody on the scene could provide, that seems to be a permissible intrusion,” he said. “But the value of the information and the urgency with which it needs to be gathered are of great importance.”
According to Wasserman, the most problematic instances are those in which witnesses are prompted to re-experience the emotional pain they’ve just suffered via such questions as, “How did you feel then?” “That’s pretty wrong, in my view,” he said.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics encourages journalists to “minimize harm” in the course of reporting such stories. It goes on to say that they should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. . . . Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness. Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”
Andrew Seaman, the organization’s ethics committee chairman, said journalism “is not harmless” and journalists need to recognize that “there are and are not appropriate ways to approach certain subjects and sources.” In this case, he said, “responding to a post on Twitter with a simple question is likely acceptable and a place to start reporting a story.”
As for Kayla Marie, her involvement in the incident at the Oregon college ended relatively well. About 10 minutes after her initial tweet about the shooting, she tweeted that she was safe: “I’m ok. Physically. We’re being bused off campus.”