The readers will have the final word

Two examples today further drive home the lesson that the journalism media no longer provides the final word on the day’s news, thanks to the Internet.

Example #1

There’s a stunning story out of the St. Louis area, involving a crowdsourced online effort to get around a newspaper’s editorial decision in covering the suicide of a local teen.

Gawker Media’s Jezebel blog appears to have amplified the controversy, which was brought to the attention of the national journalism community via a letter to Jim Romenesko’s blog on Poynter.org yesterday.

Steve Pokin of the St. Charles Journal broke the story of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who had some trouble (like many teens) but was reportedly turning her life around, in part due to the friendship of a boy she’d met on MySpace. But when the buy turned on her, insulting her, Megan was devastated, then took her life, Pokin wrote.

The twist? The boy didn’t exist. ‘He’ was the creation of the mother of one of the girl’s former friends. But the Journal didn’t name the woman, citing concerns for *her* teen daughter.

Jezebel and other bloggers went nuts, and soon, they’d uncovered the woman’s name, her address, phone number and business registration records and plastered them all over the Web.

The lessons for journalists? First, we can’t restrict access to information anymore. The crowd will work together to find whatever we withhold.

Second, I wonder if that the decision to withhold the other mother’s name didn’t help enflame the audience, by frustrating it and provoking it to do the work of discovering her identity. That frustration may have helped amplify the negative feelings toward this woman, further aggravating up the virtual lynch mob.

Interestingly, no blogger or commenter I’ve found has said anything about the other mother’s daughter, the girl the Journal was trying to protect. And I find it hard to believe that the kids in the local community didn’t already know the identity of all the persons involved. By withholding the name, the Journal might have created a larger controversy from an already tragic incident.

Example #2

The Los Angeles Times this morning advanced the L.A. Auto Show, noting, quite correctly, in my opinion, that these shows are more about creating long-term buzz than immediate sales.

From the story:

All this, though, is not for you, dear reader. It’s for us, the media.

Before the show opens to the public, thousands of reporters, photographers and bloggers are wined, dined and entertained for two days by the kingpins of Detroit, Tokyo and Wolfsburg, Germany, all in the pursuit of good press.

Among the heavy hitters in town this week: Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally; Nissan Motor Co. and Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn; and General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. They met and supped with journalists Tuesday, made speeches and shook hands Wednesday, and were gone, along with the reporters, by Thursday. Party over.

And the people who actually buy these cars? Little more than an afterthought.

The article misses the point that the reporting on the show does not stop at the conclusion of media day. Many visitors outside the traditional media will post photos, videos and write-ups to thousands of blogs and discussion boards during and after the show, extending and shaping the buzz that the newspaper, TV and, yes, some invited blog reporters kicked off this week.

Leaders in many industries understand that coverage opportunities now extend beyond traditional news organizations. A spokesperson for Universal Studios’ theme parks told me back in 2004, “we don’t so much care about coverage in the L.A. Times; we want to be on websites. That’s where our customers are.”

Media days are just step in a modern publicity campaign. If this year’s auto show, or any such event, is to be a success, it needs to elicit strong coverage from consumers across the Web, perhaps even more so than from the pros in print and on air.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. Dena Langdon says:

    In reference to the first example, does information excluded by journalists for ethical reasons and then found by bloggers suggest that ethics should change? I hope not.

  2. Ethics must be applied within some context. With the Internet, journalists can no longer assume that if they do not publish some information, the vast majority of readers will not be able to access it. Now, they can.

    So in some cases we need to change our approach from simply withholding information to considering how we might more appropriately, and ethically, provide access to that information. Otherwise, we are leaving the audience to discover that information and distribute it by itself, without the context that our reporting might provide.

  3. The mother (?) who pulled this stunt ought to first, be committed to the state mental instiutution to adminster its own brand of “messing with your head,” and then turned over to the state penitentiary for the rest of her natural life. What a sick, sorry excuse for a human being. I cheer every single cyperspacer who pulled this snake out of her nest and exposed her to the world.

  4. I don’t think that traditional journalists understand the disdain and distrust that modern readers have of them. To understand example 1, one needs to look at the history of this type of discretionary journalism. The earliest that I can think of is the Paul Bernardo case in the 90s where the Canadian courts had a publication ban on the case details – ostensibly to protect the victims but really to protect a bad plea bargain made with Bernardo’s wife. The details were published on Usenet and widely read but ironically, still not publishable by traditional media in Canada. Though in this case, it was not the journalists at fault, this illustrates the potential for abuse when a small number of people can control information without oversight.

    More recent was the outing of the Duke rape accuser, where traditional media voluntarily withheld her name – even when it became apparent that she was lying.

    Example #1 is just an extension of this widely held mistrust of dead tree outlets and the belief that they either collude or are easily duped by their sources. It is not that the bloggers did not necessarily believe that the daughter would not be harmed by the publication of the mother’s name or that this might not be a valid ethical reason for witholding the information. It is the imposition of the ethical judgement by the writer and the assumption that he had the right and power to impose it on his readers that was the problem. A simple statement that the information was available on the internet and that it was his *personal* belief that it was not ethical to print the mother’s name would have avoided the reaction that he received.

    BTW, this is discussion is now on Slashdot – which *is* relevant to today’s reader…

  5. I wonder if the constant media is not, in some ways, turning everyone into monsters of some sort or another…

    It was a horrid thing that the grown woman did to this child. But what motivated her to do it? what was going on inside her?

    Further, is this really “crowdsourcing” or some sort of internet vigilantiism, where The Group has decided it must do the unearthing of information? And is it ethical for groups of citizens to hunt down information on another individual in a crimial case–what might happen if they had been wrong??

    and who’s behind encouraging groups to go after other citizens? what’s really behind this? is it a quest for information because the press is perceived as falling down on its job? or is there something else underneath all of this–a ratings big, perhaps–that is encouraging a kind of “crowdsourcing” that could result in some very serious consequences for many people involved in this bizaare case.

  6. Well, if I were drawing the Venn diagram here, I’d put this type of mass vigilante outing within crowdsourcing, which would lie within grassroots (aka citizen) reporting.

  7. China often sees a much more extreme version of this kind of citizen journalism/Internet vigilantism.

  8. Halilu Usman says:

    I know that the problem goes beyond the issue of not mentioning the woman. Traditional journalists needs to know that the public are not only interested in the truth but the whole truth and nothing short of that will give people the desired confidence expected from the so called gate-keepers. In Nigeria where I came from the problem with journalism generally is that its just too politicised.

  9. I was part of the original discussion about this on Romenesko eight days ago (arguing, FWIW, that the local newspaper’s decision to withhold the name was paternalistic and overreaching). The story was already well-known in the blogosphere then – each of Jezebel’s posts had >200 comments – and it’s been interesting to watch it be “discovered” by the major papers and the networks. There has apparently been a significant backlash against the sock-puppet parent, largely blog-driven. Wired.com posted a nuanced discussion of the reactions here.

  10. Cody Stasiak says:

    As access to information gets easier and easier it certainly seems that a closer look into ethics in journalism is needed. Your first example illustrates this perfectly. One would think that withholding the mother’s name in order to protect the daughter would be the right thing to do. Pretty straightforward. Before information access became exponentially easier with the help of the internet that might have been the case. However, that is not the case anymore as you’ve pointed out. More consideration needs to be given to stories like this one about Megan Meier.

    I don’t think it will simply stop with a revision to ethics in journalism though, I would be surprised if the field itself doesn’t undergo some other major changes. In fact I think we’ve already seen plenty as more and more media outlets are easily accessible by the public.