Imagine this: a burst of tweets show a bus explosion on the interstate, sending up a tremendous mushroom cloud, visible from miles away. How many people are hurt? Or dead? What caused the explosion? No one knows, because all the reporters decided to give the victims and bystanders space, and respected everyone’s need to process the trauma before answering questions about it.
For as long as bad shit has happened, people have attempted to speak to the people who saw the bad shit in order to figure out how bad the shit is—today that’s called reporting, and it’s conducted by a shrinking number of print media writers, a large number of people in television, and a growing number of internet busybodies. Their job titles are different, but their shared purpose remains the same: to relay information about the world we inhabit during a time of crisis and confusion, when information is scant and bystanders might offer the best (or only) chance of piecing together the truth.
In journalism this is generally called door-knocking because it sometimes entails literally knocking on the door of a victim or eyewitness. Reporters interjecting themselves into the lives of grieving loved ones have written Pulitzer-winner stories. But door-knocking, always a source of anxiety for both reporters and subjects, has somehow come to sound more respectable than its technologically assisted alternatives, like cold-calling (or tweeting at) victims and the victim-adjacent.
That’s nonsense. Twitter is both public and a useful reporting tool, and contacting potential sources is a crucial part of news-gathering. To be a reporter is to be an often annoying, inconsiderate person who sticks his or herself where he or she don’t belong and bothers people. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it’s supposed to be! If you’re making people feel uncomfortable it means you’re earning your paycheck.
So what’s changed? Twitter, and brainless mob morality.
Today, there was a shooting at a college in Oregon. Almost immediately after news of that shooting got out, local and national news-gatherers began contacting students who had reported themselves, via Twitter, on the scene:
This has been met by much handwringing, eye-rolling, and excessively performative displays of contempt:
Hi, I’m SOCIAL MEDIA STAFFER from BROADCAST OUTLET. I’m sorry you’re in the middle of TRAGEDY, but can you follow me so I can DM?— Joshua Benton (@jbenton) October 1, 2015
gross https://t.co/nfMJussk87— Matt Siegel (@ThatMattSiegel) October 1, 2015
Reporting. pic.twitter.com/EnchCmWcmi— Mark Lotto (@marklotto) October 1, 2015
Yes, Mark Lotto, that is reporting! The implicit counter-argument here is that trying to contact someone in the midst of a tragedy is... what? Rude? An interruption? A disregard for the safety of someone who is apparently not in too much danger to start tweeting?
There’s nothing new about making contact with the people best suited to share information about something happening in the world. I know it feels very good to scold someone, better than nearly anything else in our deadened modern lives, but it’s incorrect that this is somehow bad journalism. In fact, it’s the building block of fantastic journalism. Was it any less rude and insensitive when the New York Times began calling the family members of the victims of 9/11, days after the attack, when the site was still smoking and no one even knew the complete death toll? Maybe, but there was no Twitter on which to complain about it.