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Case studies in new ethical challenges in online journalism

Tweeting a funeral

By Jasmine Linabary, Dotcom Journalists

The Rocky Mountain News began its coverage the night a SUV broadsided a Mazda pickup truck and sent it careening into a nearby Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Aurora, Colo., killing the two women in the pickup and a 3-year-old boy getting ice cream (Washington & Villa, 2008). The story in early September of the hit-and-run accident by a suspected illegal immigrant drew attention and interest from the community of the third largest city in Colorado (Temple, 2008). However, it was the coverage of 3-year-old Marten Kudlis’ funeral a week later that put the Rocky Mountain News itself into the story.

Reporter Berny Morson had been assigned to cover the funeral and had gained permission from the family to be in the chapel covering the event, following the Rocky Mountain News’ policy, publisher John Temple wrote in a later column. Though Marten’s parents requested that reporters not be allowed in the chapel during the service, family members had granted reporters permission to cover the event so a few were present, said Gerry Smith, the mortuary manager (Heussner, 2008).

Berny Morson's Twitter feed from the funeral

Berny Morson's Twitter feed from the funeral

Instead of publishing a story about the memorial service after the fact, Morson used his cell phone to cover the funeral through real-time updates to Twitter, a micro-blogging service. Twitter allows users to publish 140-character messages, or tweets, from the web or a mobile device. News organizations have begun using Twitter as a platform for news updates and event coverage (Heussner, 2008).

Morson’s updates to his Twitter feed and to the Rocky Mountain News Web site included messages such as “people again are sobbing. rabbi again asks god to give marten everlasting life,” “rabbi recites 23rd psalm,” and “family members shovel earth onto grave” (Morson, 2008). An editor’s note was included with the feed specifying that the messages were live and unedited (Oliver, 2008).

Following this live Twitter coverage, those involved, fellow journalists and media critics reacted to the coverage. Smith described the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage as an invasion of privacy, while the rabbi officiating the funeral said he did not have a problem with the coverage, suggesting that it was a way of sharing information with a wider community interested in the event (Heussner, 2008). Mike McPhee, a reporter for the Denver Post who also covered the funeral, said journalists were told they could enter the chapel as long as they were not intrusive and refrained from using cameras (Heussner, 2008). Morson’s texting was obvious and distracting, McPhee said. Temple later wrote in response that the newspaper’s reporters typically sit at the back of the hall to not be disruptive in covering funeral services.

Media professionals and critics responded in blogs posts and forum comments such as those found in Poynter Institute’s E-media Tidbits and the Colorado Independent, questioning the news value and sensitivity of the coverage (Ferrier, 2008; Degette, 2008). ABC News reported that the incident blurred public and private lines, as well as brought up questions about the appropriate use of new technology. Samuel Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, compared Morson’s use of Twitter to doing a television stand-up in the middle of the services (Heussner, 2008).

Initially, the Rocky Mountain News did not respond to interviews requested by several blogs and news organizations. The official response came two days later, when Temple responded to criticism by publishing a column on the subject of the coverage as well as commenting back on the Poynter’s blog. He wrote that the reporter did and does not make policy and coverage decisions. He suggested that the funeral was newsworthy because the story of the three deaths had drawn much attention and empathy by thousands of people in the community and that as a reader he was interested in hearing what happened during the funeral, how many people were there and how it was handled (Temple). The format of updates via Twitter presented an opportunity to help the community connect through live information since many people could not attend, Temple wrote.

Morson’s short lines sent through texting during the service also received criticism for being poorly constructed and cold in a sensitive situation (Temple). Temple responded to these criticisms by taking personal responsibility for the poor execution of the reporter’s work by saying that proper training in how to use the new technology and format was not provided. Newspapers need to learn how to use the new tools at their disposals and will make mistakes, Temple wrote, but they still need to try.

Blogs later reported that plans to Twitter a second funeral, one for a woman who died in the same accident, were canceled (Roberts, 2008).

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Works cited

-Degette, C. (2008, Sept. 10). RMN ‘Tweets’ the funeral of 3-year-old boy killed in ice cream shop. Colorado Independent. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2009, from http://coloradoindependent.com/7717/rmn-tweets-the-funeral-of-3-year-old-boy

-Ferrier, M. (2008, Sept. 11). Rocky Mountain News: Tasteless tweets. Poynter Online – E-Media Tidbits. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2009, from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=150410

-Heussner, K. (12 Sept. 2008). Paper’s decision to Twitter 3-year-old’s funeral sparks outrage. ABC News. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2009, from http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Story?id=5790930&page=1

-Oliver, L. (2008, Sept. 11). When Twitter goes bad: newspaper tweets a funeral. Journalism.co.uk. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2009, from http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/tag/marten-kudlis/

-Morson, B. (10 Sept. 2008). RMN_Berny. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2009, from
-Roberts, M. (2008, Sept. 24). Last rites on the Rocky Mountain News’s Twittering. Denver Westword News. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2009, from http://www.westword.com/2008-09-25/news/last-rites-on-the-rocky-mountain-news-s-twittering/

-Temple, J. (2008, Sept. 12). TEMPLE: New tech raises taste questions. Rocky Mountain News. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2009, from http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/sep/12/temple-new-tech-raises-taste-questions/

-Washington, A. & Villa, J. (2008, Sept. 5). Family grapples with 3-year-old’s death. Rocky Mountain News. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2009, from http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/sep/05/car-crashes-baskin-robbins-kills-child/

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