Reporters Using Twitter During a Tragedy Are Doing That Thing Called Reporting

By Mark Joyella 

Reporters were criticized for seeking interviews as the Umpqua Community College shooting was still unfolding. (Getty Images)

People tend not to like the news media very much, and seeing how the sausage gets made definitely doesn’t help.

It’s a fairly messy and at times truly ugly business, but for generations, most of that work went on out of view. Thursday, as word of the mass shooting in Oregon hit social media, the media’s sausage-making was put on display for all to see—and disparage.

When a student at Umpqua Community College tweeted just after 12:40 p.m. PT, “Omg there’s someone shooting on campus,” reporters and producers tracking the story on Twitter began responding:

The student’s mentions quickly filled with journalists eager to talk to her.

As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi describes it, the reaction of reporters—and commenters watching those reporters—was swift:

Reporters from ABC News, MSNBC, “Inside Edition,” RadarOnline, MailOnline, Fox News, the BBC and two French news organizations all tweeted requests for interviews, too. Not one but three CNN journalists were seeking her as well. The deluge unleashed a mountainous third wave — this one of revulsion, as people reading the journalists’ tweets reacted. “Absolute human vultures,” tweeted one. “Sickening,” wrote another. This being Twitter, there were numerous unprintable denunciations.

But as fast as people criticized the media for coldly hunting down interviews, journalists rushed to explain how the job is done, and suggesting that the critics perhaps chill out. Deadspin wrote a post entitled simply, “Reporting is ugly.” At Gawker, Sam Biddle argued suggestions that reporters should have the sense to leave those students alone 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. 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.

And sure enough, any reporter who’s ever been in the field has knocked on a door—some while silently praying the grieving family might not be home, or might just refuse to open the door. Others seek out the interview at all costs and think little of how their actions might look if observed.

With Twitter, our every attempt to reach the people who are impacted by news can become an embedded image in a blog post about how callous and unfeeling reporters are. Josh McConnell, a journalist at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, says it’s a question of timing.

Someone literally just tweeted about the ongoing shooting to let people know what is going on, is probably still fearing for their life and needs their phone available for emergency purposes. They are in the middle of it and you are clogging up their device with notifications wanting an interview, when they don’t even know what is going to happen to them yet.

But if that isn’t reporting, what is it, exactly?

Few reporters would prevent a person whose life was in danger from getting to safety just to get their contact information or book them for a cable news hit. But when that same person feels comfortable enough to tweet? Doesn’t that essentially invite a response—even the unwanted flood of when you can, DM me, I’m a reporter?

I don’t think anyone would suggest that a reporter interviewing a shocked person at the scene of a crime/fire/natural disaster isn’t reporting—and there’s no set time limit from when a story breaks to the safe reporting period to begin.

Sometimes bullets are still flying when a person who has fled their office arrives at the same place where the media have gathered. That happens regularly, and that’s obviously a person of great interest to reporters trying to determine what’s happening beyond the police tape.

Otherwise, what’s plan B? Wait until it’s all settled? Is that reporting?

Avert your eyes, kids, this isn’t really a process you’ll find fun to watch.