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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Social media poses digital dilemmas for journalists


In the hours following the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007, people caught up in the tragedy turned to social networking sites, blogs, e-mails and other digital technologies to express themselves. On one particular site, Facebook, pages were transformed into impromptu memorials to the victims of the shootings.

Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become the place online for students to hook up with friends, chat and share photos. Originally set up as a site for students at Harvard University, it quickly expanded to other colleges and later high schools. Last September, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everyone and it now has 23 million members worldwide, 10% of them in Canada.

But this also meant that what had once been the sole preserve of students was now available to anyone with an e-mail address.

The site was buzzing with activity on the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. Traffic increased five-fold in the space of 24 hours. The circumstances were particularly suited to a world of new media in which anyone can publish and disseminate information. The Blacksburg campus was full of young students equipped with laptops and cell phones.

Once police had locked down the area, the students turned to the tools they were familiar with to find out what was happening.

Students in their dorms turned to Facebook to check on friends, share snippets of news, talk about their experiences or mourn the 33 victims of the rampage. Reporters were quick to sign up for Facebook accounts to find people touched by the campus shootings.

This digital door stepping provoked a wave of resentment from students, as if the reporters were eavesdropping on conversations between friends.

In the physical world, the campus was quickly swamped with journalists. CNN alone sent 100 staffers to Blacksburg. Students engulfed in the tragedy were uncomfortable with the intrusion into their grieving.

Online, it was almost as if the reporters were not just camping outside the dorm, but barging into the rooms and leafing through personal journals.

“You have reporters that will create a Facebook identity just to get students’ contact information, or who will start an online memorial to get people posting for a story. It’s just inappropriate,” Virginia Tech student journalist Courtney Thomas told The Guardian newspaper.

The scramble for coverage online throws up many issues about journalism ethics in a digital age. It also raises questions about notions of privacy at a time when many young people are living their lives online. It might be naïve of the students at Blacksburg to consider their pages and comments on Facebook or other websites to be private. After all, the Internet is the most public of mediums. Information online is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.

But the problem is that many of the young people who sign up to sites like Facebook or MySpace do consider these bits of cyberspace as their own personal space. In a way, the Internet has become the place to hang out for teens. Instead of chatting in the playground, or going to the shopping mall, today’s youth go online.

University of California-Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd argues that as parents have tended to restrict the physical movements of their children, teens have turned to the Internet to escape from these physical limits. Social networking sites offer an arena for teens to do what teens do – express themselves, make friends and make sense of their place in the world. Profile pages are a place to say, “this is me,” which explains why some MySpace pages are a cacophony of design. They reflect a stereotypical teenager’s bedroom.

A teenager might consider this virtual bedroom as a private space, open only to friends. But it is part of a global network of information, where anything you publish will be archived, be discoverable through a search, and be easily copied and disseminated to anyone in the world.

How could anyone then believe that anything they do online is private?

Boyd argues that most people who join social networking sites believe in the concept of “security through obscurity”. The idea here is that unless someone is of particular note, why would anyone be interested in their profile page or their comments?

This is a reasonable assumption, as millions of people have pages on Facebook, MySpace and other similar sites.

But Virginia Tech showed that social networking sites are private spaces only as long as their users are not making the news themselves. The concept of privacy through obscurity breaks down people who hunt for information for a living take an interest, as happened following Virginia Tech. Students on the Blacksburg campus lost their shield of obscurity when the college was propelled into the headlines.

The instinct of reporters is to chase scoops and exclusive interviews. But the etiquette of digital door stepping is an untested area. Similar questions arise over the use of first-hand material culled from social networking sites. This content is both private and public at the same time. It is private in the sense that it was intended for a specific audience of friends. But it is also publicly available online.

This is a new ethical area for journalists. Understanding how people use and relate to sites like Facebook or MySpace is a first step towards resolving these digital dilemmas.

PROF. ALFRED HERMIDA is an experienced TV, radio and online journalist who joined the faculty at the School of Journalism from the BBC. He is a multimedia journalism pioneer, having been a founding member of the award-winning BBCNews.com website.

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