By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Journalists have often been criticized for the jobs they do and how they do them.
Reporters covering the shootings that left 10 dead and seven wounded at an Oregon community college on Oct. 1 faced a barrage of criticism on social media for contacting students on campus for live interviews via Twitter as events unfolded.
At 1:42 p.m. on October 1, Kayla Marie, a student at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon tweeted: “Students are running everywhere. Holy God.”
Four minutes later, she received a tweet from Alana Abramson, who said she was “with @ABC in NY.”
“Can you follow me to DM if you are in a safe spot?”
Five minutes later, Katie Conway, who said she works with ABC News, asked Kayla to follow her.
“I would love to talk to you. Please be safe.”
Minutes later, a producer from CNN reached out to Kayla, as did a reporter with the New York Daily News.
Some Twitter followers felt the journalists were exploiting a frightened vulnerable young woman in her hour of need, with one Twitter follower describing them as “human vultures.”
The public backlash resulting from the media’s coverage of the Oregon community college shooting should have little or no effect on the freedom of the press and the rights of journalists to do their jobs without outside interference. But it could lead to a lot of second-guessing on the media’s part about how tragedies such as this are covered in the future.
No one is advocating that journalists should be prohibited from reaching out to victims of tragedies. But when we criticize reporters for trying to interview people in the grip of personal tragedy we undermine the fundamental rights of a free press.
The public may not necessarily condone or approve of the methods journalists use in reporting current events but in order to relay information in a time of crisis journalists have to use whatever tools are available to get eyewitness accounts, and that includes social media.
If we’re being honest, I for one, was taken aback by the reports of journalists contacting students at the college in the midst of an active shooting. I’m certain that the last thing on students’ minds at the time was tweeting or live streaming with the press with a gunman on the loose.
Then I was reminded of the role social media played in the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the summer of 2012. In covering what came to be known as the Facebook or Twitter revolutions that lead to the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the media relied heavily on young protesters using their smartphones to report what was happening on the ground in real time.
Reporters have long been accused of engaging in “wolf pack journalism” chasing down subjects for exclusive interviews, photographs or videos. With the advent of social media, reporters can do their chasing via a keyboard.
“Long before the advent of social media, reporters were knocking on doors and stopping strangers in the street to seek facts and comments,” Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote the day of the shooting. “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.”
Sam Biddle, a reporter for Gawker.com, an online website, said any suggestion that reporters should have left the students alone during the crisis was “nonsense.”
“To be a reporter is to be an often annoying, inconsiderate person who sticks his or herself where he or she don’t belong and bothers people,” he wrote online. “That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it’s supposed to be! If you’re making people feel uncomfortable it means you’re earning your paycheck.”
Nevertheless, many on social media felt the journalists in Roseburg, Ore., had overstepped a fundamental boundary: the respect for individual privacy and that of the public’s right to know. They would argue that the students’ rights to privacy had been violated.
But Twitter has increasingly become an open forum used by people who have seen or witnessed news, whether it’s a plane crash, earthquake, terrorist attack or a street brawl.
Reporters know this and often turn to Twitter to get eyewitness accounts. That’s what happened the day of the shooting at UCC because little information was being provided by police or campus officials. The students had no obligation to speak with reporters but the press shouldn’t be faulted for trying.