It seems my final year project is throwing every journalistic issue I could face at me in the space of a few short weeks. I’ve had interviewees try to shrug me off, people demand editorial control and the police saying they don’t talk to students. I’ve also come face to face with the ethical nature of social media.
My project is covering cycling within Bristol and, unfortunately, this year has already seen four people die while cycling in Bristol, meaning I have to include it in my project and try to get an interview with a relative of the deceased.
After tracking someone down on Facebook, I was unsure what do next. It felt a little odd that I should contact them this way but after realising I had no other way, and after advice, I went ahead and messaged her through Facebook.
I immediately felt weird. It seemed like a breach of privacy. However, it isn’t that strange when it comes to the industry, with social media filling a gap that has emerged over the last decade or so.
Jackie Newton and Sallyanne Duncan look at the issue in detail in their chapter of Journalism on Trial, where they claim that many families feel excluded from reports on their relatives than feel intruded on, journalists are more negative about the death knock, and that social media is taking some pressure off of journalists when it comes to initial contact.
Ross Hawkes, a journalist and lecturer at Staffordshire University agrees, saying: “Social media does allow you to make an initial contact though. It’s sometimes not as intrusive as visiting the house or phoning. By posting a message through social media you are giving them the space to think about their response, if they want to give one at all.
“The interesting thing is that we’ve often had comments from relatives on Facebook links to our articles without us asking. We had a man who was killed in a crash earlier this year in Lichfield, and his wife, who official channels said did not want to be contacted, actually left a posting that paid a really touching tribute to her husband. Like anything, social media is a tool in the journalist’s kit – it shouldn’t be replacing anything but should be an option to be used ethically where necessary.”
While I was apprehensive initially about my contact through social media, it seems that it might have been the right thing to do. The use of Facebook in these situations may not last though, when it was announced last week they would charge people to message people they were not friends with.
As it happens, thanks to Facebook’s ‘helpful’ read notification within messages, I know that the relative did not read the message I sent. While this is unfortunate is also sort of a relief.
As for future death knocks or social media messages, I will no longer feel as apprehensive and look forward to giving relatives the opportunity to have their say.
Photo courtesy of malthe