Whatever works: A wife's tragedy and an instructive moment for online journalists

By Nathan Pensky , written on December 5, 2013

From The News Desk

Here at the dawn of the Digital Era, many issues remain up for debate. Appropriately, most of these debates are happening on or around the Internet, and unsurprisingly, few of them show signs of being resolved.

The basic problem is this: The Internet revolution has happened so quickly and has brought such rapid change that we don't really know how to handle all our new power. Our technological advances have outgrown our ability to adapt normative ethics, and so we fall back on the old tried and true, but extremely unsatisfactory, maxim of "Whatever works."

Take, for example, Live Tweeting private conversations: Is this a gross invasion of privacy or captivating "slice of life" entertainment? What about peer-to-peer sharing of ebooks: Criminal piracy or harmless way to improve access to knowledge?

This "whatever works" MO is never more evident, and nowhere more unsatisfactory, than in times of national tragedy. Breaking news, or what passes for it on the Internet, flies at such rapid speed that journalistic ethics go out the window for "whatever works." And by "whatever works," we often mean whatever drives the most attention.

Something happened yesterday that should serve as an instructive moment for online journalists, particularly those who are tasked with reporting news on the Internet in the time of tragedy.

You likely saw the story. Caran Johnson, a woman in Vancouver, live-tweeted an accident on a local highway, as it was being talked about on police scanners. First she expressed concern for the people involved. Then, because the road in question was one that her husband often drove on, she became worried that he might be involved in the accident. He'd left work early, complaining of dizziness. Tweet followed tweet, her concern mounting with every update. Until finally: "it's him. he died."

As I read details of the tragic story -- after the fact, once it had been distilled by local, national, and International news sites -- it occurred to me that it could act as an example for those of us tasked with covering breaking news on the Internet.

Too many Web journalists start with the newsworthy outcome, rush to be the first to publish what they know or what they're hearing, and only then work their way backward to what would be appropriate and responsible to share. This woman did the opposite: Because of her fear that her husband might be involved, she reports only what she knows definitely. Yes, she speculates about what could be the worst outcome, but she never actually sends that heart breaking Tweet -- "he died" -- until she knows it for sure.

How different would online reporting be, particularly at times of tragedy, if more of us put ourselves in the position of that woman? Journalism is, at its core, a line of communication between those who do not know some important bit of information and those who do. In times of tragedy, when that important bit of information has to do with whether someone is alive or dead, whether there is one shooter or two, whether a car was speeding, or foul play is suspected, the journalist is often faced with a decision: to maximize attention by reporting first and asking questions later, or to slowly but methodically report known facts until only one definitive conclusion remains.

Whatever works.

[Image via thinkstock]