Here is what I think is some good work from our staff in Salem, Mass. It’s smart, resourceful thinking about how to use freely available Internet resources to help you get the story.
Gazette Editor Lisa Guerriero wrote a note for us explaining her staff’s process and considerations on this story, and with her permission to post, here is part of her note:
When an 18-year-old Salem High School student died in a car crash, we turned to myspace.com, like many editors have, for insight into his life and the reactions of his friends and classmates. Although he had a myspace page of his own, we looked for the page that many younger people create when someone passes away. It’s an “in memory of….” page, where they post pictures, descriptions etc. about the deceased. They can also publish comments about him, viewable to everyone.
We didn’t want to just take comments from the page, we thought it was better to create our own myspace page and ask the kids to contribute via interview.
Although the public can view a myspace page whether or not they are a myspace member, you have to belong to the network in order to post a public comment, send private messages to members, or access pictures and certain other info.
So we created a “Salem Gazette” myspace identity, using a photo of the front page as our image. We posted a public bulletin on the “in memory of” page. We also sent private messages to some of the deceased’s top friends. Basically we just said that we were writing a story but we wanted it to be a story that captured the victim’s life, personality, etc.
Within hours we had a ton of responses and were able to set up interviews with many of the teenagers. When we received a reply on myspace, we told them how to reach us by phone. We even published a rap song one kid had written about the victim.
Every time someone sent us a message, myspace notified me via email.
It was a great experience for us. But you have to be really careful with this because although the sites are semi-public, there are ethical issues with using info that the people really didn’t intent to be public. Especially where many myspace users are teenagers.
I think this is a great example of participating with the community to get the story, and not seeing your publication (including your web site) as some walled garden that people can only get in through proper channels.
Also, this example illustrates the aspect of journalists thinking through the ethical issues associated with using these new tools.