— Daniel M. Jimenez (@DMJreports) September 13, 2012
I’ve seen two excellent blog posts recently about livetweeting funerals:
- Deborah Petersen, a Digital First Media colleague who is Social Media and iPad Editor for the Bay Area News Group, blogged about her colleagues’ Twitter coverage of the funeral of a California Highway Patrol officer shot in the line of duty.
- Mathew Ingram of GigaOm blogged about livetweeting the funeral of a friend.
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) October 20, 2012
Mathew is a journalist but was livetweeting as a tribute to his friend. But the anger you can read in the comments on his post underscores the sensitivity of this practice for journalists (who usually aren’t tweeting about our friends’ funerals). Someone named Rich commented:
If anyone live-tweets my funeral, I swear to God I will haunt them until the day they die. If they write an article explaining why they did it, and how it was a great learning experience for them, I’ll haunt their children too. And I’ll like it.
Many of us feel this is disrespectful … This just is disgusting for me..
Louis Cypher commented:
Do you think it would be cool if I showed up at your Moms funeral and brought a keg of beer and maybe some elephants?
If I saw someone on their cellphone at a funeral I’d be pretty pissed, and probably end up focusing on them instead of the service … You could tweet just before, or right after the service and have exactly the same effect on the people that appreciated the tweets and a better response from those that wondered why the heck you were tweeting from a funeral service.
Funerals have always been one of the most sensitive news-coverage situations. As ardently as I encourage journalists to use Twitter, I encourage restraint in the case of funerals. You have at least four ways that tweeting during a funeral has potential to offend:
- Media coverage of funerals always has the potential to intrude on mourners during the service. It is one of the situations in which journalists are least likely to be welcome, so some of the negative reaction to tweeting a funeral parallels the reaction we get from any kind of news coverage of funerals.
- The action of tweeting during a funeral (probably on a phone or tablet) can be visible to mourners nearby and seem disrespectful. I’ve covered a few funerals as a reporter. I felt conspicuous pulling out a notebook, as though I were a vulture, hoping to grab a tasty piece of carrion for my story. (I usually settled for scribbling a few notes on the funeral program.) A phone is going to be doubly conspicuous and will seem rude to many.
- The brevity of tweets often leads to an informal, breezy writing style that can seem disrespectful in the funeral context.
- When you livetweet, some tweets are seen by themselves, out of context. Reading some tweets by themselves may add to the feeling by some that this is disrespectful.
Some considerations I would encourage if you’re covering a funeral and considering whether to livetweet it:
Err on the side of restraint. In the decision about whether to tweet at all or whether to send a particular tweet, consider why someone might take offense and whether they would have a valid point.
Consider newsworthiness. The more newsworthy a funeral is, the more appropriate live coverage will seem. This was why Deb (a fire chief’s daughter) considered the state trooper’s funeral an appropriate occasion for tweeting. The shooting was big news and the family had opened the funeral to the media. A TV station was livestreaming the funeral. Tweeting seems different in that context than when you might be the only reporter or one of two or three covering a funeral of just local interest.
Where you tweet from matters. If you are covering a funeral where space has been set aside for the media, tweeting won’t be a distraction to mourners. If you are sitting in a pew shoulder to shoulder with mourners, your constant tweeting from your phone will be a huge annoyance. If the funeral has an overflow situation (as a couple I covered did), the annex for overflow seating might be less offensive a setting than in the church. Once I was able to sit alone in the back row of chairs set up in the church basement, listening on loudspeakers from the basement. I couldn’t see, but I was comfortable taking notes and wouldn’t have felt conspicuous tweeting about what I heard. Deb’s blog recounted that reporter Daniel M. Jimenez tweeted the trooper’s funeral from a simulcast he was watching in a gymnasium. While the atmosphere is still somber in an overflow situation, it’s not as intense as the being right in the same room as the service.
Consider asking the family. Though Mathew didn’t ask the family in advance before tweeting his friend’s funeral, their agreement that the tweeting was a fitting tribute makes all the complaints in the comments silly. If you have the opportunity to explain to a family member what you will be doing and why, some may appreciate the live coverage of the loved one’s funeral. But don’t ask the family unless you’re willing to live by their decision. You don’t need their permission to tweet, but if you ask for it, you’ve kind of granted them that power.
Provide context. In your first tweet or two, tell people what you’re doing and why. If you’re in the chapel or an overflow room, say so. If the family has blessed your decision to livetweet, say so. Links to stories about the person’s death also provide helpful context.
Consider the situation. Because Mathew was tweeting the funeral of Michael O’Connor Clarke, a person who tweeted nearly 15,000 times, “I thought it would be fitting to live-tweet Michael’s funeral because of his interest in such things.” The circumstance of the death and who is deceased might also play into your decision. The sensitivity is different at the funeral of a child or a crime victim from the services for a community leader who died after a long illness. One family isn’t used to media attention and the other is. One was expecting the death and one is in shock. But your relationship with the family could change either of those situations. I thought the Rocky Mountain News used poor judgment in 2008 when it livetweeted a 3-year-old’s funeral (though I admit I don’t know all the circumstances).
Tweet sparingly. You don’t need to give your tweeps a transcript of the funeral. A few key quotes or observations should be enough.
Reread before you tweet. Don’t risk an embarrassing autocorrection or poorly chosen words. Compose the tweet carefully and read a couple times before sending.
Photos are extra-sensitive. One of the criticisms of Mathew was for shooting and posting a photo. If the family has agreed to media coverage, photos shouldn’t be a problem but try not to move around a lot or make your actions noisy or intrusive.
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) October 20, 2012
Consider tweeting outside the service itself. “I only tweeted in the 90 minutes I was there before the memorial started,” reporter Matthias Gafni told Deb about the trooper’s funeral. “I just set the scene, took some twitpics of the 4-page program, list of speakers, scene-setting photos of police from across nation, some details I culled from the program. Once it started, I had to focus on taking notes for story.” At a graveside service, you might be able to stand back away from the mourners and tweet more discreetly.
— Matthias Gafni (@mgafni) September 13, 2012
Storify. The individual tweets tell only slices of the story and may seem more disrespectful out of context. Pull them together into a story of the funeral (as George Kelly did with the trooper’s funeral, drawing in tweets, updates, videos and other responses from the community, not just from journalists).
Discuss with your editor. Livetweeting a funeral shouldn’t be a unilateral decision (unless you’re a solo entrepreneurial journalist, but even then, you have colleagues you could consult with). Discuss these factors with your editor and make a joint decision. If people criticize your decision, the editor may be drawn in, so you want to be sure she isn’t blindsided (good advice in all kinds of situations). Editors, I don’t think you should insist that a reporter livetweet a funeral. The furthest you should go is to discuss these factors and encourage the reporter to use good judgment at the scene. And then trust that reporter’s judgment.
Explain what you did and why. I added this point after originally posting this, at the suggestion below from Twitter. I think explaining yourself is always a good idea, especially when you’re doing something the community may not understand.
— SFSU Journalism Dept (@sfstatejdept) October 24, 2012
I think in most cases, I would decide against actually livetweeting from the church, funeral chapel or other funeral location. But I wouldn’t issue a blanket thou-shalt-not prohibition. I think most ethical decisions are better made in thoughtful conversations about circumstances and principles, rather than arbitrary rules.
And, whenever my day comes (not soon, I hope), you have my permission in advance to livetweet (or cover with whatever tools are current at that time). I would have wanted it that way.
Update: Thanks to @KatyTorg for this update on Twitter:
— Katy(@KatyTorg) October 26, 2012
— Matthias Gafni (@mgafni) September 13, 2012