Based on the limited information we have so far on Tuesday’s shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, it’s fair to assume the event will eventually lead to the usual spate of conversations about gun violence, free speech, and more. But as news of these violent episodes continues to first break on social media platforms like Twitter, another issue keeps coming up, if less urgently than the others: What should we make of the journalists who race to chase down the social media users who live through and post about these incidents, in plain view of the rest of watching on the public free-for-all that is Twitter? Is this … morally OK for journalists to do? Why does it feel so gross?
The answer is plain: Journalists are just doing their jobs. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t uncomfortable for everyone involved. For those of you who don’t spend too much time on social media, this is how it usually goes down: Something bad happens, and a normal person with a modest Twitter following posts a picture and a few quick words about what’s going on to his or her account, probably to let his or her friends and family know he or she is safe, but also a little bit because he or she is scared and it’s something to do. Retweets and algorithms do their stuff, and suddenly the message is read by way more people than the person’s followers. The message continues to spread, and soon enough, reporters arrive in the form of @-replies, all wanting something—whether it’s to talk or permission to use a photo or a bigger scoop. First it’s Joe from National Newspaper; he’s wondering if you could chat. Then it’s Jane from Local Network, and she wants the rights to use your photo on all news platforms. But there’s also Jack from Web Outlet, could you follow back so he can DM you? Follow back and DM? At a time like this!?
In aggregate, this doesn’t look great. What it looks like, because to some degree it is this, is a bunch of journalists piling on to hassle a person who’s just experienced something tragic. (Some social media users always seem more than happy to call it out as that, with the reporters involved inevitably being condemned as vultures.) As journalists know, though, this is just journalists doing the work they’ve always done. And unpleasant as it is, for outsiders to watch and for them to do, it’s also essential. This is a point that’s been made before, on Gawker and by former Slate writer Jack Shafer, but it’s one that bears repeating as the age of the social media shootings show no signs of slowing.
Imagine a world where reporters don’t try to interview the people who were part of a tragic event. How would we know what happened? How many people were hurt, who was responsible for it, is it over or still going on? We’d have the social media accounts, yes, but they’re not always right or reliable. We’re lucky to get an official police report. Asking people who were there what happened is one of the most basic acts of journalism there is. All that said, it does look different when it happens online, and we should think about that even as we by no means promise to stop doing it.
In a Medium post from last year, a writer named Paul Bradshaw discussed the journalistic tradition of the death knock: “the job of knocking on the door of someone affected by tragedy.” Tweeting at someone who was at a shooting is a version of the death knock, but instead of at a doorway it takes place in public, basically. And the death knock, Bradshaw argued, does not scale well. Online, reporters aren’t limited by their physical proximity to the event, so they can all show up all at once on a Twitter feed, including journalists from outlets on the other side of the world, in a way they never could at someone’s doorway. The number of reporters involved will also mean that many of them are inexperienced, which may mean they don’t bring the same respect and know-how to their approaches.
Before social media, reporters customarily approached sources in private, whether on the phone or in the aforementioned doorway or wherever else. Showing up at all took an effort that is no longer necessary when the interaction can happen right in one’s timeline. And on Twitter, by dint of the platform’s design, the approach tends to happen very publicly.
Reporters have just 280 characters to work with (when they’re already drawing from society’s limited vocabulary for tragedy), and no nonverbal signifiers like facial expression or tone to ease their message. “Hope you’re safe,” a common, and well-intentioned, sentiment in these tweets, tends to feel perfunctory when it shows up over and over, and the way the tweets are displayed—all in a row and barely distinguishable from each other (“Hello, I’m X from X, hope you’re safe …”)—does the content no favors. There’s a flattening, dehumanizing affect to seeing them altogether, one after another. Similarly, explaining Twitter’s rule that parties have to be following each other to direct-message seem especially persnickety and trivial when something serious and visceral just happened. Asking permission to use photos or video has additional complications, because those photos and videos may be worth money, and if it already feels unseemly to do normal acts of journalism in times of tragedy, adding a financial negotiation to the mix feels that much more so.
All of this said, is there any better way? A colleague suggested that news organizations band together like they do in the White House, creating a system where one pool reporter can obtain rights to one interview or photo for a collective of reporters, which would limit the individual badgering any one innocent bystander faces. This approach would take some coordination, but is worth considering as these situations only become more common.
Until someone volunteers to take on that job, though, we’ll have to work with what we have. Exercising good news judgement and striving to be respectful will remain important. But we should also be upfront about the way in which doing this work in public, on Twitter, seems to automatically denigrate it. Twitter and social media still have an element of the frivolous to them, as does the whole internet—it still feels sometimes like it’s not real, a place for trolls and teenagers. We think of Twitter mentions and DMs as the domain of feuding or flirty reality stars, not places to set up crucial public interest–oriented interviews with sources. This is a problem of not only the platform but of our perception, and it’s not something any one reporter can overcome by demonstrating just the right mix of sincerity and sensitivity.
All things considered, a tweet seems preferable in some ways to showing up at someone’s house and demanding answers. And for some people, no way will ever be the right way. The people who complain of media “vultures” probably wouldn’t be too keen on reporters camping out outside someone’s house, either, but that’s the kind of thing that journalists sometimes have to do. Maybe they don’t understand the norms of journalism, or maybe they do and don’t agree with them; either way, not everyone is going to share journalists’ passion for the freedom of the press, whether the reporting happens on Twitter or in a more traditional setting. Reporters should remember that this is important work, even when they feel like vultures, even when all they’re hearing is no, if they get answers at all. It’s fine for people who don’t want to talk to journalists to say no. But it’s also fine, and in fact part of journalists’ responsibility, to ask.