Negotiating with new media: the “Facebook hostage-taker,” police, and the press

One of the trends in news reporting that has developed as a result of media convergence is the increased use of social media services to provide information for news stories. Some of the earliest reports of the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado last summer were first hand accounts posted to web sites like and others. These reports, as well as pictures and cell phone videos uploaded by users, found their way into some of the initial mainstream news coverage of the shooting. After police released the name of the suspected gunman, reporters began searching social media sites for indications of the man’s identity. One news outlet reported that the shooter was a member of the Colorado Tea Party, after finding a social media profile with the person’s name listing affiliation with the group. Later in the day this report was retracted; the profile belonged to another person named James Holmes, and not the suspected gunman.

There are examples in our local media, as well. Earlier this semester a UCF student died after being struck by a car. When the Central Florida Future newspaper covered the student’s death, the front-page article was fleshed out with information taken from the student’s Facebook profile, including his profile picture.

This week in Pittsburgh a man went into an office building and took another man hostage (apparently at random), threatening him with a knife. As police surrounded the building the hostage-taker logged into his Facebook account and began posting status updates. The police considered shutting off his account to keep him from communicating to the outside world, although the standoff ended peacefully before they took that step. The fact that the man used Facebook during the standoff has been one of the most prominent aspects of news coverage of the incident.

The Colorado incident highlights the dangers inherent in the “Google first, verify later” attitude that has become pervasive in journalism. It is so easy to “Google” someone or look them up on Facebook that it has become second nature to most of us, and that includes people who work as journalists. But journalists should hold themselves to a higher standard. All facts should be verified (just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it is true), and Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are web sites, not sources.

However, I believe that new media and social networking services are invaluable tools for disseminating and finding information. Where I live in East Orlando there are routinely incidents where police cars are stopped nearby and apartment complexes are cordoned off with police tape. When there is obvious police activity near my apartment I check local news outlets to see what has happened. Nine times of out ten the incident is never reported on. I believe this is because the Orlando Sentinel and other Orlando news services have suffered from layoffs, buyouts and cutbacks that have affected the entire journalism industry. This means that there simply aren’t enough reporters to cover everything that happens. It is in this gap in coverage that citizen journalists can step in and illuminate the dark spots.

Yesterday afternoon I was on campus, near the library. I noticed a helicopter circling overhead for several minutes. After a while it was joined by a second helicopter, this one from a TV news station. For over half an hour the two aircraft circled campus. As it seemed clear that some event was happening on campus I expected to receive a UCF text message alert on my phone (already this semester the university has used this notification system several times). The emergency alert never came. So when I got home I went online to try to find out what had happened. None of the local news sites had any coverage (including WESH 4, whose news-chopper I had seen), and neither did the UCF news site. So I went to which has a sub-site for discussing UCF issues. Users on reddit had posted pictures showing emergency vehicles outside the College of Sciences building, and students who had been there reported that the building had been evacuated due to reports of smoke.

My point in relating all these stories is that I believe citizen journalism and information sharing through new media are a wonderful tool, and can provide coverage of issues that otherwise would go unreported. But that does not mean that professional journalism is obsolete, I think it is just as essential as ever if not more so. However, professional journalists must apply the effort to earn their title, paycheck and professional status. Relying on Google and Facebook as your primary sources is hardly professional.

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