Trusted local news leader for Kingman, Arizona & Mohave County
Mon, Sept. 23

Column: Just because you're online doesn't clear you of responsibility

I'm still relatively new to the fraternity of journalists, and like all who take on a new career, I will struggle with aspects of it. One of those battles I internally fight every day is a journalist's relationship with social media.

My generation saw social media take off, and people started having to balance online lives with real life - and sometimes, people are brazen when behind the keyboard. We can also feel a disconnect from what we write, and being wired in all day long has created this insane demand to have information fed to us as it happens, raw and unfiltered.

That is an unnatural social responsibility we haven't figured out how to wield yet, and some online groups in Kingman are proof that we may be getting this wrong.

At the Miner, and at nearly every news outlet out there, we rely on a combination of sources to gather our stories and write them. We don't know everything that's going on. That's why we depend on the community for some information, and sometimes we have to mine stories from public meetings and events. We also tap into conversations and feeds in social media to tip us off on something we might need to cover.

Obviously, we do this with caution. The Associated Press handbook on my desk reads "social networks should never be used as a reporting shortcut when another method, like picking up a phone or knocking on a door, would yield more reliable or comprehensive information."

It's painful for me to agree wholeheartedly with that statement.

While citizen journalism has taken off and provided us with voices that otherwise might not be heard, it's given birth to a breed of brutes basking in the bowels of social media. I fear them because they endanger others and spread misinformation at alarming rates, often under the premise that they are the self-proclaimed watchdogs for the community.

We have a police scanner in the office. It sits on Doug McMurdo's desk, as he needs it the most for his beat. In the right hands, a police scanner is a valuable tool for collecting raw information as it is happening. What you are hearing over the scanner isn't indicative of what is actually going on. It's the initial information shared by first responders, the police and the dispatchers to answer a call.

From there, they go to the scene and assess the situation.

Before we publish anything, we call the departments involved to get that assessment. If something doesn't match up, we ask about it. That's our job, and ultimately our credibility rides on getting the correct information the first time.

Every time we do so, we weigh out the public's right to know versus the potential for personal harm. If this piece of information will harm someone, is it absolutely critical that the public knows about it? Can we ethically filter this?

Now I'm watching groups of people online with massive followings who cross this line literally daily, and cringe as I see a public chomping at the bit for more.

Domestic abuse victims. Fall victims. People attempting suicide.

Every little thing that comes over that scanner is getting posted in a place where the record never goes away. Commenters jump in to offer prayers and support, but never question the ethics of what they just read.

Even without a name, it isn't hard to piece together an identity from a block number and house description.

That suicidal subject? There's now a log about the attempt on social media from strangers going play-by-play through one of the worst moments of his or her life, with commenters saying things like "somebody's gone batty" and "feed us more info" and "any idea who it is, yet?"

Posting "suicidal subject on the block of ____" crosses that line by identifying someone and forever keeping record of that darkest moment. The issue of suicide as a whole needs a public discussion, but it shouldn't involve the identities of victims without their consent.

That's what's missing in citizen journalism: ethics. They have audiences in the thousands, just like we do. The difference is they aren't held liable for what they "report" and can get away with posting inaccurate, unethical, and sometimes downright threatening things online without repercussions.

Journalists don't have that luxury, nor do we desire it. Our job depends on publishing information as soon as we can confirm that it is accurate and ethical for publication.

Even with us, you as a reader must question everything you read and do research on your own. Relying on a guy on the Internet to feed you scanner news is dangerous because you are relying on information that doesn't encompass the complete story. If you want a larger example of this issue and how dangerous it can get, look up the scanner controversy from the Boston Bombing in 2013.

Social media was never meant for this. This dichotomy between you and your online persona does not abdicate you of responsibility for what you say.

I'm not jealous of those who can write without consequence. I'm frightened thousands celebrate them without question.

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