A longtime fact of journalism is that when tragic news breaks, we need to get information and reaction from people under great stress. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to us. Sometimes, though, they reach out publicly to friends and supporters on Facebook.
Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis of the Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, Mich., a Journal Register newsroom, did an outstanding job earlier this month using Facebook to gather information, including the tragic conclusion that a missing woman was found dead. I asked Lisa to share her reporting techniques with colleagues on a Google group. Then Jim Brady and I decided it would make a good blog post.
Lisa used names in her email, but I have edited this to remove the names. I’ve linked to a couple stories above, so you can see the end product and what I’m writing about. However, I don’t want this post to show up in Google searches for the names of the people involved. Journalists can sound insensitive and detached discussing how we cover tragic stories, and I don’t want to add to their pain by having this column show up inadvertently in search results for their names. So here’s Lisa’s account of the story behind the story, with names replaced by generic references such as “the wife” or “the boy.”
When I logged in to Facebook Sunday evening, from home, on a normal day off, I certainly didn’t expect to be bombarded with breaking news questions and information.
There, in my Facebook inbox, were several messages asking if the Morning Sun knew anything the Amber alert for a four-year-old boy or the missing person report for his mother, or the search for the boy’s father. It seemed that people concerned about the story turned to social media to network and gather information to find the mother and son, and in looking for information to provide, looked to the Morning Sun. I called desk editor Jeremy Dickman, who, because of a press release emailed to us from the Sheriff’s Department, was already working on a story.
Through coincidence, living in Mt. Pleasant for 16 years, and having 800 Facebook friends, I happen to be friends with the husband police were looking for. A quick check of his page led me to the page of his wife, the woman considered a missing person with her 4-year-old son.
The wife’s page is public, and as such, even though I’m not her friend, I could see all the posts. Her last post was strange, from Friday right around the last time anyone heard from her, and mentioned taking a trip to California. As word spread through Facebook, the grapevine and actual news sources like our website, friends of the woman began to comment that the status seemed unlike her.
As I read the comments, I realized that the wife’s mother commented there, as well. Her profile is also public, and her worry for her daughter from Friday to Sunday is clear in her status updates.
Within an hour of our original story posting, the father and 4-year-old boy were found. The mother was still missing, and her mom very publicly, on Facebook, wondered about her daughter’s whereabouts. I copied several Facebook posts from the wife’s mother as well as the wife’s last post and emailed them to a couple editors. I felt that the information could be useful in tracking down details of a bigger story if one existed.
This morning at around 6:20 I checked the various Facebook pages. Just a few short minutes before, around 6:15 am, the wife’s mother posted this:
“I want to thank every single person out there for all your thoughts and prayers for my daughter. She is at peace now and in heaven. … Thank you all and I will post funeral details as they are arranged, thank you again.”
I checked my email, and seeing no press release from the sheriff, emailed the information to both the online editor and executive editor, both of whom work a morning/day shift. I then contacted the online editor, Mark Ranzenberger, through Google Chat (he was logged in) and relayed the information. He felt we needed to confirm the information with the sheriff (I agreed) and within 5 minutes had confirmation that indeed the woman had been shot and her husband was being charged with open murder.
While Mark updated the story and sent an SMS, I updated our Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as my personal Twitter and Facebook pages.
Immediately after the story was updated and published, links were placed in social media. All before 7 am. The sheriff’s official press release wasn’t emailed to all media outlets until 7:15 am, well after we had already published the story.
That’s a pretty long story, but a good example of how social media allowed us to break a story well before our competitors, just by clicking around a little. The personal, human side of the story is still unfolding publicly through social media; posts by the woman’s mother and others expressing sadness, lots of posts on the husband’s page expressing anger and confusion.
Meanwhile reporters are working their beats, getting the hard facts, the criminal history and covering the arraignment this afternoon and updating the story on the website throughout the day.