One of the most powerful things about Twitter as a real-time communication service is that it is so fast and easy to do: Type a few words — or at most a couple of short sentences — into a mobile device, then hit “send” and your thoughts are transmitted instantly to thousands or even millions of people. That makes it a great tool for things like live reporting, as we’ve seen in a number of cases, but is there a line we shouldn’t cross? A reporter from the Boston Herald recently got some flak both from fellow journalists and readers for posting updates to Twitter from a local dignitary’s funeral. Are there things that shouldn’t be tweeted about?
Ian Rapoport is a sports writer for the Boston paper, where he writes a blog called The Rap Sheet, and as part of his coverage of his beat, he attended the recent funeral of Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft, who died of cancer. While he was there, he posted some observations to Twitter about the service, including excerpts from the rabbi’s remarks about the deceased — and this caused a minor firestorm within the Boston media community about whether this was appropriate or not.
Is Twitter too informal to be respectful?
Rapoport defended his actions both on Twitter and on a local radio program that dedicated a show to the incident, saying he didn’t post anything to Twitter while he was in the Temple during the service, but only posted comments and observations before and after the ceremony, and that all of his remarks “were respectful.” On the radio show, he added:
I was there as a reporter going to write a story on the funeral, on the service, which I did… What I want to do every time is bring timely newsworthy information to readers and followers and whoever else, basically in every way that’s available, and so I tweet a lot.
This isn’t the first time a reporter has gotten criticism for tweeting from a funeral. In 2008, a journalist with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, posted live updates to Twitter from the funeral of a young boy who was killed in a tragic accident. Other journalists criticized this behavior, saying the short and public nature of Twitter made the reports from the funeral “too informal” and that the reporter’s comments sounded “glib” because they weren’t capitalized or punctuated properly.
I argued at the time that posting news updates to Twitter from the funeral of a public figure seemed to me like a perfectly acceptable form of reporting. Reporters were invited to attend the funeral service, and many reported using more traditional means at the time — including TV reports. Were those other methods somehow more respectful? I don’t see how. But it’s interesting that posting to Twitter is still being criticized several years later, despite being much more mainstream now.
Should some things be off limits to Twitter?
It also raises the question of whether there are things that are simply inappropriate for anyone to post to Twitter about, whether they are a journalist or not. Is a funeral one of those things? I think if a funeral was private or attended only by family and someone decided to broadcast their thoughts to the world, that might be seen as inappropriate. What about a rape? Andrea Michelle caused some controversy earlier this year by posting to Twitter that she was attacked and sexually assaulted by a man in her home — and then she posted a description of her attacker, as well as her thoughts about the incident, until the local police asked her to stop. Why? She said:
Many of my close friends and I communicate via Twitter. It was a way to reach out quickly to a large number of people who had the potential to have information or the ability to help. People I have never spoken with before have sent their support via Twitter. I could not have gained that through any traditional means of communication.
In another incident in 2009, a mother posted her thoughts and reactions to Twitter after her young son drowned in her swimming pool. A storm of criticism painted the mother as insensitive and self-absorbed, and possibly more concerned about social media than the welfare of her child — but others said it made sense for her to reach out to a virtual community of supporters and friends that she had met online. What side of that debate you come down on probably has a lot to do with whether you think social-media tools like Twitter are a normal part of someone’s life or not.
All of these incidents may seem like classic cases of what Twitter critics call “over-sharing,” but the lines of what should remain private and what should become public (to the extent that a Twitter post is public) are continually being redrawn, and in many cases differ from person to person. Some may see that kind of behavior as evidence of a Twitter “addiction,” but it seems more likely that we are simply seeing our attitudes toward these kinds of boundaries evolve, for better or worse.