Is lifting condolences off Facebook too easy?

Should journalist bypass grieving families by scanning Facebook memorials?

By Monica Riehl

Thanks to Facebook, reporters have an easy alternative to the dreaded task of interviewing grieving people. But is it appropriate for journalists to quote Facebook memorial posts?


Adam Cashen preparing to go for a ride on the family’s horse. He died on Jul. 26, 2007. (Facebook photo used with permission)


By Monica Riehl

It may be just a recorder, a microphone or a camera, but to some grieving families who suffer the traumatic loss of a loved one, it is artillery. It can transform a well-meaning reporter into an unwelcome intruder.

Larry Cornies, a professor at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, describes contacting grieving families as “a much feared job of journalists”. It is so feared that some journalists are turning to Facebook memorial sites for quick quotes and fitting photos. But this approach does not give families the opportunity to talk about the ones they lost—an opportunity that some really want.

“I think the media has to realize that we do want to talk about our stories, and we do want to get it out there whether it’s good or bad,” says Arlene Audit, who lost her son Jonathan in a workplace accident. “We’re either going to say go away, or welcome them in.”

Audit did not have the chance to talk to a reporter after Jonathan died of asphyxiation in Alberta on Jan. 13, 2005. The media covered Jonathan’s death, but the stories did not provide insight into the person Jonathan was. No media reached out to his New Brunswick family.


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Interviewing grieving families
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“I think the media would have been nice to talk to, just to talk about him,” says Audit. “Not just the tragedy, but about him.” Eventually she reached out to the media, writing letters to the editor of the Grande Prairie newspaper. Audit says she wants people to know about Jonathan as her son, not as a statistic. She now shares his story in her advocacy work, promoting workplace safety.

Like Audit, Carol Cashen was not initially contacted by media reporting the death of her son Adam, who jumped from Halifax’s Macdonald Bridge on Jul. 26, 2007.  She is not certain if she would have been able to respond to media questions right away, being in shock.

Cashen’s first media contact came five months later when Matthieu Aikins, a writer for The Coast, was researching an article about suicide prevention and bridge barriers. Aikins contacted her through Facebook, which Cashen appreciated, because it gave her a chance to consider his request and respond when she was ready.

Her subsequent work and advocacy about suicide prevention, including the publication of a book on how families can deal with suicide, has brought her into contact with other reporters. She says her experiences have been positive overall. She does express concern, however, over the use of Facebook photos.

“I would see pictures, like on TV after they did an interview with me, and I was like, ‘Where did they get these pictures?’ It was Facebook,” says Cashen. She appreciates that respectful pictures were chosen, but would have preferred to be asked. “However, I do understand that if you are going to open yourself up, then they’re [the media] going to find what they’re going to find.”

Both Cashen and Audit administer Facebook memorials dedicated to the memory of their sons. But neither wants the posts, as comforting as these are, to supersede their voice. This, Cashen says, would take away a needed personal touch.

The Facebook route

Perhaps because they are so public, accessible and convenient, journalists are starting to rely heavily on social media outlets. In a article in May 2010, reporter Kendall Walters observed that Facebook has become a vital newsgathering tool:  “Many journalists, rather than shoving recorders in the faces of grieving family and friends, are opting to use Facebook to find a photo of the deceased, and search memorial pages for friends and relatives who may be willing to speak.”

Arlene Audit lost her son in a workplace accident on Jan. 13, 2005. (Facebook photo used with permission)

A recent study revealed that most reporters and editors depend on social media sources for story research. Cision, a provider of newsroom software for the public relations industry, and Don Bates of George Washington University’s master’s degree program in strategic public relations, surveyed 371 journalists writing for newspapers, magazines, and websites.  Eighty-nine per cent said they use blogs as a means to research stories, 65 per cent use social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and 52 per cent tap into Twitter and other micro-blogging sites.

Dan Arsenault, a crime reporter for The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, began covering the crime beat pre-Facebook, in 2003. Today, he finds it helpful in locating crucial details quickly.

He recalls a Friday afternoon, as he was preparing to leave the newsroom, when he heard of a murder in a small Nova Scotia village. As the night reporter started making phone calls, Arsenault began scanning Facebook: “Within, like, five minutes, I knew the victim’s name.”

Facebook is especially valuable, he says, because some people are not accessible using traditional methods like the phone book. “If it’s a young person in an apartment, the odds of them having a land line and being in the phone book are pretty slim,” says Arsenault. “It’s hard to track people down.”

What ethics codes say… and don’t say

Facebook is changing that, and it’s a blessing for short-staffed newsrooms. It is forcing media outlets to permit access to social media sites at a time when most businesses forbid it. This access has mainstream media rewriting ethics codes to include expectations of conduct on social networking sites and re-posted stories.

The Washington Post has been accused of being too restrictive in its guidelines about a journalist’s online persona. The BBC acknowledges the usefulness of blogs to discuss BBC work, but cautions staff about appearing to endorse tweets and posts. Some guidelines, like the Associated Press’s, remind journalists to verify all sources and information collected online.

What has yet to be addressed in most codes is whether or not it is okay to quote comments and condolences, and re-post photos of victims found on Facebook memorials.

“I would see pictures, like on TV after they did an interview with me, and I was like, ‘Where did they get these pictures?’ It was Facebook.”
–Carol Cashen

Nancy Waugh, executive producer of CBC News in Nova Scotia, writes in an email that the CBC does not have any written guidelines on this yet, but reporters make a point of contacting the page administrator and posters to share memories. “In general, our approach is to source everything back to the memorial page,” writes Waugh. “If a photo is contributed to Facebook, it’s noted as such. If a comment is posted to the wall, it’s written into the script as such.”

These are important considerations. Contacting posters, administrators and family members directly links journalists to sources who can provide a more in-depth story. It is also a way to verify information.

Cornies, of Conestoga College, says, “I think if journalists are doing their jobs, they are also double checking on posters.” He sees Facebook memorials as a very powerful tool that “offers a kind of glimpse into that person’s life.” He believes Facebook quotes “have a place”, but it should not take the place of the voice of the family. He, too, has personally encountered families who later regretted not speaking to the media about the loved one they lost.

Some ground rules for quoting Facebook

The importance of approach

Dalhousie University psychologist Dr. David Mensink has not heard this sentiment from the families he helps cope with loss, a field he has specialized in for more than 20 years. He says the majority of comments from traumatized and grieving family members are not positive, and media contact is not appreciated. He understands why families do not appreciate media inquiry at a time of loss, describing the behaviour as “invasive”.

“And really, the function and the purpose of the person in the media… is not for that person’s benefit,” says Mensink. “They’re not there to make that person feel better, or to help that person calm down.” Mensink says privacy is most beneficial to the family members during a time of loss.  He cannot recall an individual who said talking to the media right after a traumatic event was helpful, and from a psychological perspective, he does not see how it could be.

Arsenault has also heard negative comments about the way journalists have approached people. “In my opinion, it’s because these reporters hate so much trying to contact victims that they don’t do it very well.”  Approaching people in sensitive situations is something Arsenault has spent a lot of time learning how to do well. “It’s an important part of my job,” he says, “but it’s also one of the trickiest parts of my job.”

Jonathan Audit
Jonathan Audit poses at his prom. (Facebook photo used with permission)

In his 36 years as a journalist, Halifax CBC reporter Rob North has also spent a lot of time considering the best way to approach grieving families. “I think when somebody’s lost somebody you really have to find a way to engage in their loss,” says North. “It’s quite possible to be very sensitive, and very respectful, and offer people a genuine sharing of their loss… You are coming in from the outside, but you are the bearer of their story, you are the teller of that story.”

Arsenault’s approach is similar. He tries to build a rapport with the families, impressing upon them that they have a story to tell: “They can shape what I write.”

He finds that every response is different; some people politely decline his interview request, and some are shocked that he is asking. At times, he is told, in no uncertain terms, to get lost. “When someone is in misery like that you know I don’t even try anymore, I just want to minimize as much impact… and I leave.”

Minimizing harm is a driving principle in many journalism ethics codes. Causing further injury to a family who has just lost a son, daughter, wife, husband, parent or friend is a common worry for journalists. No matter the circumstances of the death, standing before a family in grief is a dreaded moment.

“A number of people around here,” North says of the CBC, “are not prepared to phone up somebody who has lost a loved on, and put the question, ‘How do you feel?’ because the answer is obvious. Is the alternative to fall back and go to a memorial website? That depends on… what is on the website.” He is currently not active on Facebook, but says he may be eventually. Facebook, as a journalistic tool, North says, is “a piece in some level of evolution”.

As an active Facebook user, Arsenault is logging onto Facebook to research. Still, he is not willing to trade in new conveniences for old traditions: “I think the closer the communication, the better.” He adds that Facebook is “not the end all and be all, but it’s part of the puzzle.”

Elsewhere in this issue
Street newspaper takes hard hit
Backlash, breakfast, and fans: life as a Herald cartoonist
Judge Joe: media watchdog
Life after the Daily News