The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Twitter, funeral coverage can work together

I know I’m a little late on this one, but I had to say something because one of the hardest things

Hans K. Meyer

Hans K. Meyer

I was ever asked to do as a reporter was to cover a funeral. I covered plenty of them in my career, and I always worried that I was intruding on a private family moment. I even photographed the service of the former Mayor of Barstow who died young from cancer, and I felt so conspicuous standing at the back of the chapel, wielding a bulky digital camera with a large telephoto lens.

Despite my fears, however, I was always surprised at how well received and appreciated our coverage was. Families told me the newspaper helped the grieving process with their published tributes. Friends remarked how nice it was to know what happened even if they couldn’t be here. I came to realize that funeral coverage, especially of those people who had already been prominently featured, was a vital public service the newspaper should offer as long as it was done with respect.

I’m not sure what to think about the controversy surrounding the Rocky Mountain News’ decision to cover the funeral of a young boy who died when a truck smashed into an ice cream store. Too much of the criticism I think has been focused on the technology the reporter used to cover the service – Twitter – and not enough has been focused on its intent. Twitter should not be summarily dismissed as a viable tool for journalists, even for those covering funerals, but both journalists and audiences need to understand its advantages and limitations to use it most effectively.

Understandably, the Rocky Mountain News extensively covered the story of Marten Kudlis, a three-year-old who died while waiting for ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Just yesterday, the paper reported the illegal immigrant who drove the truck that killed him and two others was going 77 mph. In all 66 stories I found with the keyword “Marten Kudlis” none of them mention any ire from the family about the coverage.

In this case, as in most of the funerals I covered, the criticism comes from outsiders. em dash on DailyKos.com, reprinting a story from Carla DeGette of the Colorado Independent, calls the coverage “reprehensible.” Eric Krangel, on Silicon Alley Insider, calls the Twitter stream “cringe inducing.” He also writes:

Memo to newspapers: We know your business is dying, and you’re desperate to seem hip to the latest Internet trends. But this is not the way to do it.

If the newspaper were covering the funeral and using Twitter only to drive readership and make national news for itself, then I’d tend to agree with him. But what makes Krangel and other critics thinks this was the paper’s intention. I think John Temple, the paper’s editor, describes it best.

Most of us couldn’t attend the service. But that doesn’t mean we don’t empathize with the family and don’t want to join in their mourning in some way … One way for a news organization to help a community connect is to send information live from the service, just as we do from events ranging from political conventions to road closings to concerts and parties. We don’t have to wait to publish in the next day’s paper anymore. TV and radio don’t wait, and people seem to value that.

Like Temple, I have to wonder if people would be making the same denunciations if an Aurora-area TV station got the family’s permission to broadcast the services live.

I also don’t think you can claim Twitter is the culprit here. An objective look at the transcript of the reporter’s tweets does not reveal anything “cringe-inducing” if you ask me. It’s a basic run down of what happened. It’s probably no different than what a reporter with a camera might have captured. Temple acknowledges the posts may seem crass, but he takes responsibility for that failing as the editor. On the other hand, he argues ..

But to claim there is something inherently wrong with the idea is to make too sweeping a judgment …

We must learn to use the new tools at our disposal. Yes, there are going to be times we make mistakes, just as we do in our newspaper.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something. It means we need to learn to do it well. That is our mission.

To this, I whole-heartedly agree. I worried when I first read about this controversy that it would lead journalists to completely write off Twitter, which has already been used effectively to cover trials. The Las  Vegas Sun is using it right now to cover O.J. SImpson’s latest legal troubles. Wired Journalists has four pages of comments on how professional journalists have used Twitter.

The point is while funeral coverage is always sensitive, it is often necessary. As long as they respect the family and do not detract from the proceedings, journalists need to use all tools at their disposal, whether they include a camera or an iPhone.

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October 1, 2008 - Posted by | Hans Meyer

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