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Girls light candles at a memorial set up to honour the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Conn., December 18, 2012. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)
Girls light candles at a memorial set up to honour the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Conn., December 18, 2012. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)

Public editor: The dangers of using social media for interviews on sensitive subjects Add to ...

The mass killing at Sandy Hook elementary school was a shocking event, one that touched all parents and citizens to the core. Not only have those families faced the worst possible tragedy, they are dealing with the death of a child in the midst of a major news event. When that happens, the media must be responsible and respectful of what those families are going through.

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Their right to privacy must be respected along with the news media’s responsibility to inform the public at large. The Connecticut town’s police spokesman has warned the media not to knock on doors or disrupt those who are grieving. And from what I have seen, the media have been respectful.

Still, there are two aspects of this tragedy that should cause media organizations such as The Globe and Mail to stop and reflect on its journalistic policies and practices.

The first came to light in an article by Jeff Sonderman of the U.S. Poynter Institute. He writes of the perils of asking for interviews on Twitter. “While social networks have made it easier for journalists to find and contact potential sources, it’s also made the hardest part of the job even harder. Those delicate interactions, what used to be just two humans figuring out what feels right, often occur over the cold distance of electronic communication and in full view of the public.” Mr. Sonderman’s conclusion is a good one: in person or phone contact is probably best in most cases because with social media, you cannot demonstrate empathy and you cannot get a sense if the person wants to talk publicly about the events.

I agree that any outreach on Twitter or Facebook should be respectful and should be a last resort. A reporter can express their empathy and make their contact information public should anyone want to comment, without intruding. Ideally, the reporter should reach out to a more distant family member or friend and see if anyone from the immediate family wants to say anything, just as the reporter should when making similar phone calls.

There are friends and family members who want to talk to the media about their loved one for various reasons. They want to honour them, they want the public to know the person as they do or sometimes they believe that they can help move public debate. And that is part of their healing process.

The other issue is that of photographs. The Globe’s front page on Tuesday showed Veronique Pozner being escorted to her car after the funeral service for her six-year-old son, Noah. Several readers called it an invasion of Mrs. Pozner’s privacy. “The tragedy that occurred in Connecticut on Friday was news: The grief of the families is private. Why do the news media seem unable to distinguish the difference?” asked one reader.

Elena Cherney, The Globe’s managing editor said, “These are difficult and sensitive decisions and we weigh them carefully. This has been especially true when we have used images of children in recent days. In the case of Veronique Pozner, her son Noah was the first of the massacre victims to be buried; no reporters or photographers were present at the funeral service and kept a respectful distance at the cemetery. Mrs. Pozner reportedly spoke movingly at her son’s service; her image represented the pain and mourning of all of the families, which was a story we wanted our picture to tell.”

News editor Gregory Boyd noted that The Globe and Mail’s photographer was one of many photographers, reporters and videographers standing in a place that the police and other officials had sanctioned as an area for the media. “In some of the images, Mrs. Pozner was waving toward the cameras, using the opportunity to acknowledge the astonishing outpouring of sympathy and support directed toward her and the other grieving families.”

 

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