Virginia Tech, Reporters and Facebook
I am a Facebook member, and over the last few days I've been active in memorial groups and pages for victims of the Virginia Tech shooting. My involvement in these groups is two-fold: to learn about the victims and their lives, and to demonstrate to their families and friends that yes, I am a real person (and a recent grad) who cares about this story and the people involved.
As soon as CNN reported that Virginia Tech students were using Facebook for memorials, tributes, and to let people know that they were okay, the site suddenly became something else: a place for reporters to find subjects for their stories. Response to this was all over the map--some memorial pages indicated that reporters should look elsewhere, some were happy for the attention, and some just ignored the input. I viewed this with interest: does the mainstream media now not only want to reach out to people in other ways, but need to? Could they be shut out from an entire generation of people--my generation--who lives online instead of through a phone line or a specific place?
Just as I was thinking about this, I got the following Facebook message from one Laura Moran:
My name is Ernie Torriero and I am reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I am in Roanoke writing a tribute to Henry, emphasizing his success and immigrant roots. Can you email me at [email] with a phone or cell contact or call me at [phone number]. Thanks very much. I think it is important in this tragedy to emphasize the accomplishments of students like Henry.
The interesting thing here is that the reporter makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's using Facebook—and an account that is not his, to boot--to research his stories. I decided to give Ernie Torriero a call.
Torriero told me that he saw Facebook as a public forum at his disposal—essentially, another research tool. He said that as a free, public forum, Facebook invited contact. “It’s a way I can reach out without being in peoples’ faces,” Torriero says. “If people want to email me or call they can, but I don’t have to phone them and pursue them.”
When I asked Torriero why he used Laura Moran’s Facebook rather than his own, he replied that Moran was a Tribune online employee and a grad student, so he used hers. He was not aware that anyone can now create a Facebook account, even without a university email address.
So, are mainstream journos like Torriero now left adrift to figure out these new online tools? Do journalists have to use forums like Facebook to reach out to younger people? Torriero says no, but that it definitely helps. “Any online tool can help us,” he says.