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The rights and wrongs of cyber-doorstepping

Every big story that affects a community has brought complaints of press intrusion by reporters who descend on the place or use the phone searching for accounts and opinions. It has always been so and is again with the Virginia Tech killings.

Yet there is a difference: the internet. Not only are people blogging and putting personal accounts and pictures on social media sites, but the numbers of reporters looking for a piece of the story is multiplied.

What we will never know is how many people complain about intrusion and how many welcome the chance to tell the world of their experiences. Some reporters behave insensitively pushing people who clearly do not want to talk.

The new issue is the use of blog and social media material and the cyber-doorstepping that goes with it. Once you had to be there, camped outside a house but now now anyone can do it.

Papers and broadcasters covering an overseas story had to wait for whatever their own staff and agencies could provide. If it was big enough a fireman would be flown in.

One of the people looking for new information from a computer terminal in the UK was the BBC’s Robin Hamman. He has reflected sensitively on what he did both on his own blog and in comments made to Media Guardian which devotes two pages to the debate today:

BBC new media journalist Robin Hamman discovered a blog entry, claiming to be an eyewitness account, and was asked to verify its accuracy. He chose to approach the author by instant message, but as the day wore on many journalists – including one from the Guardian – simply added comments saying “talk to me, please, here’s my number”.

The onslaught angered many other surfers, who saw the torrent of media requests as invasive. The reaction made Hamman reconsider his objectives. “My approach was, I think, professional and sensitive,” he said. “But now, after seeing the way the press descended upon him, I wonder if I should have made that approach, primarily for confirmation purposes, at all.”

The Media Guardian spread asks: “Were reporters were right to solicit information from students’ web pages? Patrick Barkham answers “Yes” in the first part of the web story followed by Jeff Jarvis saying “No”.

Barkham, a Guardian feature writer, justifies the approaches writing:

In terms of invasiveness, asking questions on a blog is the equivalent of a reporter approaching a group of people having a conversation on a street by the site of a tragedy. A blog is not a private home; posting questions or invitations to talk further is not as intrusive as knocking on a victim’s door.

Many bloggers don’t realise that the fundamental reason for asking questions on blogs, or on streets, is to better establish the authenticity of eyewitness accounts. There are plenty of fantasists and hoaxers in the real world and online. Sometimes witnesses agree to talk to us; at other times we retreat in the face of these familiar “vulture” jibes.

And he concludes:

To those bloggers, I’m sorry: big media is here to stay online – for as long as audiences want information created by the rigorous questioning and testing for truth undertaken by responsible professional journalists.

Jarvis, who is a journalism professor at New York’s City University as well as a Guardian columnist and blogger, believes the journalistic wish to verify will become increasingly impractical in the new architecture of news where anyone can publish. He writes:

Increasingly, they will share what they know on their own sites – often intending not to publish to the world but simply to inform their family and friends. Because this is on the public web, we get to listen in; we learn more.

Yet it’s doubtful that these witnesses will want to – or should have to – field challenges from scores of reporters, each exercising his journalistic duty to vet, or his business reflex to negotiate exclusives.

He continues:

It will become increasingly difficult to vet every story, link, or source. And it’s rather anachronistic to believe that the press can verify and edit all news, when the public can and does go around the press to find sources directly – via links and searches – on the web.

He advocates linking to blog posts which have not been vetted. I find the Jarvis approach disturbing. It is consistent with his belief that readers will become media literate enough to find their own way though large volumes of unmediated material.

Last week when I challenged his view that exclusives were no longer important, he responded that I was “looking at this from the perspective of the journalist rather than the readers.” On the verification of material from blogs I also take the perspective of a journalist. It is that while some readers may wish to plough though unchecked raw material, most still want news which has been vetted by a trusted media organisation. To start linking to web sites with the warning “We have no idea whether this person even exists or whether what they say is true” would only confuse the readers and viewers and undermine trust.

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