Facebook on screen

On Tuesday, Jeff Sonderman posted an article to Poynter focusing on whether news outlets should publish information acquired through so-called “creeping” on Facebook and Twitter.

The latest case occurred when an Oshawa teen was struck and killed by a moving train on February 13. The next day, durhamregion.com, Durham’s community news site, published an article about the incident, which said in part, “Durham Regional Police are not releasing the boy’s name upon the parents’ request, but his friends and peers have turned to social media to share their condolences, identifying him in their messages as Jacob Hicks.”

A debate ensued. One commenter wrote: “I am in shock that you, (the media) did not respect the wishes of the family to keep a name private….. However, I am totally flabbergasted at your absolute disregard for privacy when you have published the photos you have chosen. My deepest condolences to the friends and family of this boy… my deeper sympathies for having it splashed all over the internet.” Another reader said, “I feel badly for the family. But I am scared of the muzzling of a free press pushed by so many. Unidentifed 16 year old killed by train means nothing. Telling his name, the words of the good samaritan nurse on the dying boy, the mp3 player, what his friends said, how the school body felt, the fact Jacob played bass in band…this tells a touching, tragic story..for this OTW [Oshawa This Week] deserves praise not scorn.”

Is there such a thing as privacy when it comes to content posted on social media sites? There are arguments for both sides. In the case of Hicks, I question the relevance of durhamregion.com publishing his name. The site’s managing editor posted something of an explanation for the choice on February 22, stating the newsroom decision was made because many in the community already knew the victim’s identity. This makes me wonder: if that’s the case, what’s the point of going against the family’s wishes? Could the publication not have discussed the Facebook memorial pages without disclosing the boy’s name?
Respect mourning families and don’t get in the way of police investigations, or engage in a little creeping and publish all the details? It’s a question news outlets grapple with in a world where communication has become driven by social media.
Take, for instance, a case last summer where a rape victim from Florida posted tweets about her ordeal and emotional recovery process. Warned by the police that she was interfering with their investigation, she continued to post updates, causing news organizations to consider whether they should publish her tweets—even though it’s general policy to withhold names of victims of sexual assault.
Durhamregion.com reporter Reka Szekely says creeping is “a reality of modern news coverage.” If she is right, maybe it’s not a question as to whether journalists should or shouldn’t publish; maybe the responsibility now falls on the public to be extra vigilant when posting online. Or at the very least, ensure their pages are private.
Photo via Flickr user west.m.
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About the author

Trisha Marie Fialho was the Public Relations Manager of the Summer 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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