Twittering a funeral — why not?

by Mathew on September 12, 2008 · 31 comments

I have to say I’m a little surprised by all of the hoopla about a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News posting messages to Twitter during the funeral of a young boy. From the sounds of some of the coverage in other newspapers and on various blogs, you would think the guy had shown up with a camera crew and interviewed the grieving family while they were weeping by the graveside, or done a helicopter fly-by. All he did was type on his mobile during the service, as far as I can tell, and what he posted was nothing but the actions of the mourners and the rabbi. There was nothing inappropriate, nor ghoulish, nor anything that could be seen as an invasion of privacy (reporters were invited to attend).

So what’s the big deal? Journalists report on unpleasant events all the time — including car accidents, murder scenes, war and even funerals. I think the journalism professor quoted in one story who compared it to someone doing a TV standup in the middle of the event is overstating things just a tad. Did the Twittering add a huge amount to the telling of the story? Maybe not. Although I think if someone couldn’t be at the funeral and they knew the young boy or the family, perhaps they would have liked to hear about it as it was happening.

I found it interesting that amid all of the hand-wringing, the rabbi who did the service didn’t seem to see anything wrong with it at all. He seemed to feel the same way as I do — that it might have been helpful for some people who couldn’t come. Plenty of people seem to think it was in “bad taste” — including Valleywag, apparently, where they certainly know a lot about bad taste, since they engage in it so regularly. But why was it in bad taste? It wasn’t obvious (except perhaps for the sound of typing), and nor was it exploitative. It was just a reporter using another tool to extend a story. What’s so wrong about that?

Update:

There are some comments from the editor of the Rocky Mountain News quoted in this thread on a sports forum. Among other things, he says “I won’t defend twittering at a funeral in this manner, but I look at it as someone pushing the envelope of new media – too far in this case. It’s not as though this sort of thing shouldn’t be attempted in the future, but this is clearly a bad example of how to do it.” Hat tip to Westwords for the link.

  • http://www.darrenbarefoot.com Darren

    The question of 'bad taste' is, I think, simpler than people are making it out to be. What were his physical actions inside the chapel during the funeral? Is it appropriate, for example, for a reporter to take notes during an funeral? I'm not sure, but I'd lean toward “yes”. That is, a reporter can attend if permitted, but he or she ought to act like a mourner.

    There's another, under-reported issue. Looking at the screenshot on SVI, the reporter's Tweets were totally banal and ordinary. What value did Twittering the event that way deliver? What did his 'readership' need to know in real time? The normalcy of his tweets suggests that it was more of a stunt than an exercise in reportage.

  • http://www.darrenbarefoot.com Darren

    Call me a belletrist, but I'd add that it behooves the reporter to respect the rules of capitalization, even on Twitter.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree the Twitter posts were pretty banal, Darren — and so maybe not a great example of what Twitter can do as a reporting tool — but then, an awful lot of boring and banal stories appear in the newspaper every day.

  • http://www.thestalwart.com Joseph Weisenthal

    In total agreement Matthew.

    If it was a family member Twittering the funeral, that'd be a bit concerning. You might say to them: “Dude, try to be in the moment”. But assuming the event is worth reporting on, then there's nothing wrong with the reporter doing it. Though I'm not sure what value there really is in realtime updates at a funeral (you pretty much know what's going to happen). Still, that's a totally different issue.

    I think the real reason people are freaked out is that they're projecting: In that reporter, they see themselves — Twittering everywhere, even in situations where it might be unnecessary, superfluous, or vaguely inappropriate.

  • Aldi

    I'm a journalist, and the only thing I found wrong with it is that it seemed like a waste of time. Real-time twittering of a funeral simply isn't needed or particularly desired by readers. But tasteless or “inappropriate”? Please.

    What I did find inappropriate and journalistically questionable was the ABC reporter's inadvertant admittance that her blog bookmark list consists entirely of journalism shoptalk sites and the Daily Kos.

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  • http://www.thestandard.com/news/2008/09/11/misguided-new-media-experiment-twittering-funeral Ian Lamont

    The problem wasn't Twitter, the problem that it was live, play-by-play coverage of a private family travel. If the RMN had used live video with commentary or a live blogger, the reaction would have been the same.

    Ian Lamont
    The Industry Standard

  • http://www.leonwestbrook.com leonwestbrook

    The comments in the ABC NEWS article just make me facepalm repeatedly.

  • http://www.afhill.com Andrea Hill (afhill)

    >It was just a reporter using another tool to extend a story.

    I think the difference is the fact that a reader chooses to open the paper and read a story. The nature of twitter is that it “pushes” the story to you, and you can't really choose to read or not read particular tweets. This person's followers were subjected to these details, and their option would be to completely unfollow this person, or receive the play-by-play of this funeral.

    So what's the alternative? It's hard to say, other than perhaps to question if twitter is robust enough to support this sort of information. I think hashtags are a great way for people to follow particular stories, but they're generally for opting-in, not out (that is, I could choose to follow everyone twittering about “osufootball” but I can't choose to block everyone twittering about “childfuneral”.

    I just think twitter is simply a new communication channel and the etiquette still needs to be worked out. The “push” versus “pull” of information is just a different paradigm that people haven't become accustomed to..

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    I think the most offensive part of the whole story is actually the phony moral outrage of, for example, Valleywag. It's simply a tactic to drive more sensationalist page views, so in that sense they and others who are trying to get to the top of Techmeme with this story are much worse than the reporter.

    That said, I think that anyone who decides that a child's funeral is the place to “push the new media envelope” is completely lacking in any kind of judgment or sensitivity. I know from direct experience that the death of a child is just different from any other kind of event.

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  • http://www.driverarchive.org/ driver

    I think the most offensive part of the whole story is actually the phony moral outrage of, for example, Valleywag. It's simply a tactic to drive more sensationalist page views, so in that sense they and others who are trying to get to the top of Techmeme with this story are much worse than the reporter.

  • 123ggg
  • http://www.mikepost.nl/ Mike Post

    Great article, man. Keep up the good work and please do keep sharing.

    Thanks in advance!

    Mike

  • link7881

    Journalists are just doing their jobs. But sometimes they have to be nice especially when taking interviews and shots of a grieving family. They doesn't look professional in that way.

    http://paradisecopters.com/hilo.php

  • http://www.squidoo.com/twittertipstricks Twitter marketing

    Why not, indeed…Twitter has so many uses, free speech being one of them.

  • http://www.mydigitalphotopictureframes.com/ Digital Photo Frames

    I think it's disgusting

  • http://www.buy-bird-food.com Bird Food

    Yeah, this kind of coverage is very disgusting. I think this kind of events should remain private.

  • http://www.gossipsandstars.info Iv

    I like it!

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  • http://twitter.com/schaptal/statuses/5836702457 schaptal (Stéphanie Chaptal)

    Twitter Comment


    @PierreTran Pour certains oui [link to post] C’est plus que limite AMHA

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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