Modern journalism is here to stay. What are you going to do about it?

It used to be, back in the day, that a person could say something inappropriate. The verbal gaffe was immediate and maybe passed on via word of mouth. At some point, those words would likely die a quick, painful death.

With the acceleration of technology we all have heard hideous stories of someone losing their job over an electronic gaffe. Some poor fool sent an inappropriate email to the wrong individual, or worse, to an entire list of people. With the advent of email and social media, our mistakes, or perceived mistakes, are on record - permanent, unerasable- can't just hit delete to make it all go away.

One example of a story kept alive involves a local paper and its use of social media. The story lives on and the Rocky Mountain News can't run from it. And, I give the paper credit for not running. The situation occurred earlier this month, and thanks to its permanence on the internet, I'm blogging about it.

The Rocky Mountain News sent a reporter to live blog (or micro-blog in this case) the funeral of a 3 year-old. The child was killed in a hideous accident when two cars crashed into an ice cream store. The story provoked interest because one of the drivers was an illegal immigrant. Berny Morson from the Rocky used Twitter to post in 140 character "tweets" or messages to cover the funeral. (This type of staccato message reporting is called "micro-blogging.)

This is important: the Rocky had the permission of the parents to report the funeral.

People angry over the use of that medium staged a huge outcry. The Dallas News accused the Rocky of a Marv Albert play-by-play style broadcast. Michael Roberts of Denver weekly Westword also invoked a sports analogy: "Here's a sampling of Morson's posts, which seemed to have been delivered by a golf commentator accustomed to whispering at greenside while players lined up putts." And in a post on Computerworld Ian Lamont, of the Industry Standard, dubbed the effort "misguided."(I guess he didn't have a sports analogy handy.)
It seems like the Rocky's experience doesn't just provide a "teachable moment," but also fodder for those who challenge news broadcast on electronic media as a lesser form of journalism.

I feel the critics pain; I love reading print publications. I hate ebooks. I am appalled to see kids hooked up to all kinds of things with wires. We can't, however, live in the past. It's time to move on. In his correspondence with Michael Roberts, John Temple, the Publisher of the Rocky Mountain News put it this way:

"You're free to think what you like," Temple continued, "but your thinking is indicative of the stultified, deadly minds that are destroying American news organizations."
I probably wouldn't have chosen those exact words. I would have said it this way:
Innovate or die.
And I would have responded by text message. Just kidding.

I think the time where online journalists can be marginalized as "oh that's just the bloggers," social media as "just for fun," and Second Life* as something for "those crazies who played D&D in high school" is OVER.

There is a whole, group of folks behind us who get the their news online and apparently it's not just the kids. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports this on electronic medium and the presidential election campaigns:
A record-breaking 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others.
And I am sure they were reading about other news topics too. That 46% is growing. Before the Democratic National Convention, I hosted a group of "Editorial Operations" editors preparing for the DNC. Who are Editorial Operations staff? They are the people who connect the editors, journalists and the technical staff. I asked them about print publications and one editor said, "we're already over it. They'll be gone in 10 years." And this dude was an old white guy who was a career journalist.

What is a traditional medium for reporting unusual, or sensitive events like funerals? I don't know if that question applies any more. The accusation that reporting via Twitter is "play-by-play" reporting demonstrates a lack of understanding of the application- Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters. That is not the same thing as color commentary. Twitter drives you to be concise resulting in abbreviated messages, shortened words, use of symbols, etc. It's called micro-blogging.

And why are we criticizing microblogging as intrusive? I have seen TV coverage of funerals. I don't really want to watch something as sad as a funeral, but I don't criticize the networks for this. There are some people who would watch funeral coverage - and why that is, is not my business.

Electronic media are pervasive in all aspects of our lives. And who hasn't had an experience where these new medium enter our lives in uncommon places? Chatting on phones in the supermarket, texting while sitting next to a family member, emailing on a Blackberry during a meeting, taking a call while in a bathroom stall. All unsavory to me because those folks aren't "in the moment," but there's nothing I can do about it. I better learn the media or not be competitive in the work place and become detached from everyone who is adopting it.

I rarely agree with the Rocky's editorial opinions. I often vehemently diasgree with its editorial opinions. I have been disappointed and gratified by some of its news coverage.  In this case I can say that John Temple has pushed his paper to try to understand and adapt to a confusing time. He's sticking up for what he thinks is right and dealing with all the criticism lobbed at people who try something new. He'll keep doing it too, because those words are on record. Print journalists had their words on the record too. But they haven't had to deal with almost instantaneous criticism that can come from having your words on the internet.

Folks, this techno train is about to leave the station.

Are you on the train, or not?

-I Can't Keep Up

*Esteemed organizations like Harvard Law School and the University of North Carolina Pharmacy School are now teaching classes in Second Life.

PS- for the record, I wouldn't want coverage of a relative's funeral, but that's not the point here.


Frank Conrad Martin said...

Deb, in my opinion, social media will advance the same way as any other new medium - with users trying new ways, both appropriate and inappropriate, before we come up with generally accepted norms of behavior for what is ethical and what is not.

That said, the thought of tweeting a child's funeral is just as unconscionable to me as thrusting a camera into a grieving mother's face as she learns of her child's death. Permission or not.

I Can't Keep Up said...

I am with you Frank- I don't like the idea of the coverage of a funeral either. I just think folks are taking this opportunity to criticize the technology, not whether or not it is appropriate to even cover a funeral.

Jane Chin, Ph.D. said...

I respectfully dissent from Frank's opinion: the parents gave the paper consent, maybe because they wanted to share their grief in some way.

Having a line of text describing the actual event without editorial adulteration is different from running a clip on TV showing the faces of the parents or the weeping wails at the funeral.

I see it almost as a time-based documentary of the event as it occurs.

How is this different from watching a clip of the actual funeral (given the families' permission)? Would it have been more acceptable if the paper, instead of microblogging AS IT OCCURS, simply blogs about it after the fact? I bet the blog post would have a lot more editorial projection than simple lines of facts of the event.

I Can't Keep Up said...


Since I posted I have thought a lot about the "broadcast" aspect of this kind of reporting. With the exception of notable historical figures, video coverage of funerals is not necessarily live, but edited after the crew has its shots. Same thing for print coverage, or photo coverage. The microblogger is self-editing, of course, but it still has a "raw" quality to it that edited copy/video does not.

Sonny Gill said...

Deb - it certainly was an 'open shot' at technology vs. the ethics of the situation, which was the issue at hand.

Traditional journalism is spilling over into new media as technology continues to evolve; sometimes without full understanding of the medium. But whether new or old, there are limits with media outlets and I personally think they (as well as the parents for agreeing to it) had stepped over it...with ethics not technology.

Jane Chin, Ph.D. said...

I think this is why I believe that the fidelity of the event, free from human projection, is more likely to occur with live microblogging than "after the fact" reporting, whether this be edited videos or blogs.

When you are right there at a scene or event of some importance, whether this be of national importance or cared about by the community, a microblogger knows he or she has only 140char to dispense each time. There is greater likelihood of report the facts than adding personal opinions; just not enough space.

Whether this is in good taste or not, that is more of a subjective matter than the objective question of, "is this a case of manipulating the facts around the event in any way that would form consumers' opinions to the angle of the reporter?"

Kellye Crane said...

You certainly provide a strong and reasoned argument for your point, Deb. However, I think the objection for many people (including me) is not the use of Twitter for a funeral in and of itself. It's the perceived callousness of the actual Tweets. "Earth being placed on coffin" uses only 28 of the available 140 characters, and fails on both the social media mantra of "be human" and the typical journalistic goal of providing context. In watching televised funeral coverage, I don’t think I have ever seen an image of the dirt going on the coffin.

That said, you and Jane have offered up some great points about the value of instantaneous reporting, and I look forward to seeing more of it. As Frank has noted, I’m sure there will continue to be both some hits and some misses as organizations learn how to use these powerful tools. In my opinion, this incident was a miss.

Mack Collier said...

First, I'm wondering if those criticizing the tweeting of the funeral understand that Twitter is an opt-in service? You have to AGREE to follow the person that tweeted the funeral. If you didn't, you never saw it.

Also, I think Kellye hit on something, it sounds like the reporter wasn't too versed in using Twitter either, else s/he could have more 'effectively' used the site to communicate what was happening.

But in the end, the parents gave this their blessing, and no one saw the tweets that didn't AGREE to follow the tweeter.

Good post Deb, and interesting discussion.

Beth Harte said...

Deb, I hadn't heard about this but have read your post and the comments left.

My first reaction is that tweeting a funeral is in bad taste. I know it was approved, but still...

My second reaction is exactly what Kellye/Jane/Mack mentioned...Yes, perhaps the parents approved so that they could make an impact or impression, but it doesn't seem that the reporter tweeted in a way to draw compassion. I have a feeling if he were writing an article it would have been the same. Most good writers, regardless of the tool, know how to draw people in, stimulate emotions and get a reaction.

I agree with the point of your post though, the technology train has indeed left the station. Perhaps you might want to consider offering your services to the local papers so that they can learn and understand how to use micro-blogging tools like Twitter effectively. :)