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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 4, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    Journalistic ethics, Twitter and the reporting of Gerry Ryan’s death

    Hugh Linehan

    Last Friday afternoon, irishtimes.com had the biggest traffic spike we’ve experienced since our launch in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the site as news of the sad and untimely death of Gerry Ryan filtered out across the country.

    By the time we published the story, at 3.20pm, it had already been the subject of wide discussion and speculation on social media networks and message boards for more than an hour. The Irish Times had received unofficial confirmation from authoritative sources that the story was true. We had our report written and ready to go. However, we did not publish until we received official confirmation from Gerry Ryan’s employer, RTE. In doing this, we were following the editorial guidelines we follow in relation to reporting the death of any individual, well-known or otherwise, in Ireland: official confirmation on the record from next of kin, employer or the emergency services is required before the name of the deceased person is published.

    Since Friday afternoon, there’s been a heated online debate about the actions of some journalists on the day, including Una Mullally of the Sunday Tribune and Sunday Business Post technology editor Adrian Weckler, both of whom posted the story on Twitter well before it was officially confirmed. Between 2pm and 2.15pm, Weckler tweeted three times: ‘Gerry Ryan…? What?’, then ‘Another source in here claiming Gerry Ryan is dead’, then ‘Spreading like wildfire. Gaining credence. Still unconfirmed, though’. Weckler was cautioned online by broadcaster Matt Cooper and by Frank Fitzgibbon of the Sunday Times (‘Adrian, might be best if you wait until it’s confirmed, do you not think.? I believe he has a family’). RTE broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan responded to Una Mullally’s tweeted query on the subject: ‘Tragically it is true. So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP’

    When contacted by RTE, O’Callaghan deleted her comment, but it had already been widely republished (users can delete their own posts on Twitter, but have no control over them once they’ve been circulated by others). The Sunday Times put ‘Miriam’s tweet’ and the fallout from it on its front page, while Mullally wrote a lengthy article on the whole issue in the Sunday Tribune (strangely omitting her own involvement in the story, although she defends her position on that in her comment on Jim Carroll’s post here).

    All of which might just look like an unseemly bout of media navel-gazing in the aftermath of a personal tragedy for Gerry Ryan’s family, friends and colleagues. But there are serious issues at stake here.

     Journalists have daily access to information sources not available to the general public. With that access comes responsibility. Most media professionals know this and have it hardwired into the way they respond to such information – they discuss how best to proceed with their colleagues and editors. There is a chain of command which ensures things are done correctly and ethically. It doesn’t always work, mistakes can be made and standards may radically differ from one organisation to another, but recognisable decision-making systems are in place.

    On Twitter, there’s no editor to make those calls. And, because of their immediacy and informality, social networks feel different from traditional media platforms, be they newspapers, broadcasters or websites. One minute you’re discussing the football match with your pal, the next you’re passing on the ‘scoop’ that a well-known person has died.

    But for a professional journalist, the same ethical and legal responsibilities attach to publishing something on Facebook or Twitter as to printing it in a newspaper or saying it on a radio programme.

    There’s been a lot of finger-pointing over this issue since Friday. As an editor, I have no particular desire to clamber onto high moral ground, but I do think mistakes were made and we all need to learn some lessons from them. Discussion of ethical issues in the media is often presented as some sort of Manichean battle between principle and profit, with the latter usually winning out. But really, it’s not  like that. Yes, thousands of people came to irishtimes.com on Friday for this particular news, but they also went to other news sites, all of which had the same story up within minutes of each other. Short-term traffic gains made by running the story earlier would have been more than outweighed by the long-term damage created by a perception that we had behaved insensitively and inappropriately. Ethical and commercial considerations are not mutually exclusive. And there’s no particular commercial benefit to be extracted from posting on Twitter, either.

    Newspapers and broadcasters risk devaluing their own reputations if their journalists are permitted to publish scattergun pieces of information they happen to pick up in the office. It’s not a question of censorship, but of editorial judgment and discipline. Maintaining those standards is a real challenge for all of us in journalism and it’s one we’re only really starting to consider properly.

    There’s a lively discussion going on over at On the Record about this. You can read and comment on Una Mullally’s Sunday Tribune article here. And Adrian Weckler’s thoughts on the subject are here. There are a lot of interesting comments on all three pieces.

    • dealga says:

      There’s no value in journalism that breaks news that will be common knowledge in a matter of hours anyway. That’s just jumped up gossiping.

      The real journalistic value in breaking news should be about the desire to publicise information that otherwise would remain unpublished.

    • XXfactor says:

      Doesn’t this disgraceful/unethical conduct come within the Auspices of under ECHR/HRA Article 8 (1) and (2) ?

    • paul mooney says:

      We are the Media, everyone is an editor on Twitter.

      The original source of this story was authentic and as a journalist you should have done your research

    • hugh says:

      i do remember thinking at the time,this can’t be true until it appears on the I.Times Breaking News. I think Twitter generates an eagerness (a scramble) amongst all to be the first to break a news story.

    • kynos says:

      This country is the original valley of the squinting windows. Gossip is what powers our society to a huge extent. And we expect in our innocence people to obsrve the proprieties on Twitter? God bless you Mother Ireland yer rearing them yet.

    • N@rm says:

      Flaming noobs. News will out. There’s ethics at stake in journalistic timeliness too. Get a move on!

    • Una Mullally says:

      Hi Hugh, tried to leave a comment there but it didn’t work so I’ll give it another go. Not sure I dig being lumped in with other journos who tweeted unconfirmed reports about Gerry Ryan’s death when I didn’t. Maybe you could look back over what I did write, because all I said was that I heard some shocking news and then said that I was trying to get some real information, not the rumour that was being spread by other journalists. I would never tweet an unconfirmed report about somebody’s death, never, so I’d appreciate if you could clear that up in your post, cheers.

    • Lucy says:

      I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

      Lucy

      http://businesseshome.net

    • maura mcloughlin says:

      I think journalists in general jumped on the band wagon and never gave a thought to Gerry Ryan’s children, wife, brothers or partner.
      I dont think anything should be published without first passing it with the family.
      But what is really sickening me is the great pretender on RTE1 everyday banging on about his great friendship with gerry when from what I can gather is, they met at the water cooler as a matter of speaking.
      I would prefer if more people were more honest.
      Rest in peace Gerry Ryan.

    • Zoe says:

      Seems fitting that Adrian Weckler is attempting to break stories on Twitter, what a twit. No story of someone’s death is so big that the family becomes an irrelevance. Get some perspective please.

    • barbera says:

      What’s on your mind…

    • barbera says:

      I think it will be quite a while before the legal system catches up with regard to regulating online protocol. As Hugh writes, ” … mistakes were made and we all need to learn lessons from them” and perhaps this unfortunate twittering incident may be used as a precedent. I do, however, remember the strict rule regarding correct behaviour when wearing our uniforms (in my case, Loreto) but it didn’t mean you could behave like a rogue when out of uniform!!
      (Why the change in “Leave a comment” format for the blogs? I find it annoying and it doesn’t seem to work properly)

    • Miriam Doyle says:

      Twitter is a very dangerous tool. When all these people were gossiping did they think for one second that he has a family and a very young family at that. How would any of us feel if we read on twitter that your dad had died.

    • Ted says:

      “Newspapers and broadcasters risk devaluing their own reputations if their journalists are permitted to publish scattergun pieces of information they happen to pick up in the office. It’s not a question of censorship, but of editorial judgment and discipline. Maintaining those standards is a real challenge for all of us in journalism and it’s one we’re only really starting to consider properly.”
      I hear what you’re saying and I understand why you’re saying it, I think, but applying your quote to the TV3 Brian Lenihan issue – was there any sanction, or are we just left with a memorable (if slightly distasteful) TV3 scoop?

    • Mary Casey says:

      Desperate carry on…

    • XXfactor says:

      The feeding frenzy that surrounded this despicable event tells you everything you need to know about the carrion crows of ‘Grubb Street’ and the priorities of the Twitterati…Talk is cheap…chirpy chirpy cheap cheap…these weren’t rookie (unintentional pun but hey it works) journo’s so save the miserable mea culpa’s puhleeezzzee…

    • Eamon Wright says:

      The facts were reported both immediately, and very accurately, via Twitter, Facebook, and other social network sites. The immediate family had already been informed of Gerry’s demise at that juncture. It would appear that the fact you were pipped to the post (as the paper/website of note), has galled you somewhat – but, as has already been said, it’s journalism, and paper will never refuse ink…

      Miriam had her hand smacked by RTE, and you’ve attempted to drag Una into the blame game too – yet they were both doing what they do. Suggesting that they should have held fire is not far off monopolistic censorship, but what should one expect from an ass but a kick.

    • Michael H says:

      As if to add insult to injury we had this twist on Twitter:

      “adrianweckler: Press starting to muckrake on Gerry Ryan now, in a sly way. Indo’s front page today? Questions over the cause of death. Pretty sad. ”

      In fact they don’t question the cause of death. They say a postmortem and toxicology tests are being conducted to establish cause of death: “More tests to find out how Gerry died”

      “Initial indications from the scene suggested that the 53-year-old broadcasting legend suffered a massive heart attack.

      Toxicology tests are often carried out by pathologists when a relatively young person has died suddenly. The tests can help determine, along with a person’s medical records, what factors led to the death.

      Garda inquiries at the scene indicated that there were no suspicious circumstances evident. There was no sign of a struggle or forcible entry to the apartment and Mr Ryan had no marks on his body. ”

      Where exactly is the muckraking? And where is the SBP’s social media policy and some resemblance of decency from Weckler? Mind you, looking at his history of tweets don’t expect one to be forthcoming. And this is the guy who wrote an SBP article recently called “Tech Tossers”? The irony.

    • Clare says:

      Great post. You got to the crux of the issue. Interesting piece.

    • robespierre says:

      Una, I for one as a former reader of the Sunday Tribune would never lump you in with journalists let alone other journalists. You move to its opinion pages precipitated the demise of my following its content.

      The IT has values and should stick to them – even in an era of convergence.

    • Damien says:

      Like many other people I followed this story as it unfolded last Friday with great interest. From my recollection the Irish Times confirmed the matter online at 2.55pm, not 3.20pm as set out above. Is this correct?

      I recall (though am open to correction) that the Irish Times confirmed the matter online before Newstalk and Today FM reported the death in their 3pm broadcasts.

    • it'd says:

      This reminds me of the non story about Lenihans illness. Journalists wringing their hands about the ethics of reporting stories of little consequence. Ryan’s passing is a tragedy for his family but the lady di/irelands 9/11 stuff is actually insincere and disrespectful. Every 2 bit broadcaster in ireland posing with a broken heart, please. What about NAMA? Jesus, if Ireland ever needed journalists and broadcasters to ‘care’ about something now is the time.

    • Seamus O'Shoes says:

      To be honest, given the pontification by RTE news and current affairs and the Sunday Business Post about matters pertaining to good governance, transparency, accountability, and general fairness, you’d think they’d be the first to openly disclose the social media policy for their employees and contractors. Or to even have such a policy enforced.

      So, will we see the brave new media gurus behind storyful, election.ie, politics.ie – and the other usual suspects – pursuing FOIs against RTE to disclose these policies or indeed the cost to the license payer of the overblown Gerry Ryan hysteriafest? Will the deeply unpleasant at best of times Adrian Weckler take his twitter address on the SBP tech page this weekend? (Insert response to Gogarty’s question to Bailey “Will we get a receipt?” here)

    • Seamus O'Shoes says:

      Contrast the uproar there’d have been from the same people if it was a prototype iPhone that was found lying on the floor of that bedroom instead of a human being and the details were disclosed …

    • FOI This, Una says:

      Speaking of ethics, Twitter, and Gerry Ryan: How did Mark Little get the G Ryan gig for RTE if he’s on leave?

    • J Martyn says:

      Happy to say I did not read one article on the subject, nor do I, indeed, read any articles in Irish newspapers – Irish journalism does not exist – it is a forum of trash, speculation, misinformation and gossip. The media in Ireland is as vacuous as the alcoholic government “running” the “country”! Have commented here simply to let the morons know that there are persons not interested in your little country!

    • kynos says:

      Might be an idea in the spirit of Crosaire to leave a few clues as to particularly relevant or indeed irrelevant past events vis-a-vis the day’s reportage sprinkled throughout the text. With a cut-down Archive subscription (or maybe a combo Newspaper Archive/Java Crosaire Archive the reader could hunt down the historical events each day through the archives. Would be good sport for them with time on their hands. Anyway just thought I’d suggest it.

    • Ciaran says:

      I agree that verification is absolutely necessary before any news story should enter the public domain. The false report of Jeff Goldblum’s death that circulated the internet the day after Michael Jackson’s death is a case in point.

      Having said that as long as the deceased’s family have been informed I see no reason not to publish something truly newsworthy as quiclkly as possible when it has been verified. Incidentally I don’t necessarily think that verification need only come from the emergency services, family member or employer. As long as the source is reputable (and that is the judgment call of a good journalist) then there is nothing wrong with dissemenating news as quickly as possible.

      It may be true that people turn to the Irish Times for confirmation now but if a news site can establish a reputation for breaking the biggest news stories first with accuracy people will eventually turn to that website for all breaking news. I see nothing wrong with that at all.

    • Diane says:

      Who really cares who did or did not write about Gerry Ryan – the whole thing was blown out of all proportion from what headlines i couldn’t miss reading. As for RTE broadcasting the funeral – that was bizarre. He was a puffed up broadcaster of a 2nd rate show on a 2nd rate radio station.

    • shellshock says:

      Gerry Ryan put himself and his family in the public domain. Therefore, whilst yes, anyone with a shred of integrity or moral decency would have made sure the family knew, we are talking about the media here who have a long dishonourable tendency to abandon ethics in the guise of public interest. And as Ryan had made a living peddling himself and his kids out to the media, it is hardly surprising that there was such awareness of his persona. Plus the media has lost control of the news flow of information. Deal with it.

    • CDW says:

      Never mind the ethics… it’s a shameful pity that the irish times followed the herd and mass hysteria of ‘reporting’ his death…. there are far more important things actually happening in the world available (on many news sites and papers (free I might point out) that the irish times never reports… unless they are cut and paste from original sources) that would have been more deserved of the ink and paper. While I was sad for the family and close friends and while it was nice that the general public mourned him (although I found it bizarre as most people wouldn’t mourn their family and neighbours) you might as well have published the latest of ‘apparitions’ of the virgin mary.

      the irish times sinks once again…. can you please step your journalism up a mark and lead the way and start differentiating yourselves from the tabloids and become the broadsheet newspaper that I grew up reading every day as a child? Can you please actually report proper news and not idle gossip and hysteria?

    • Padraig R says:

      I think the lack of control over social media websites is good in one sense, but clearly bad in another sense. Social media is an excellent means of getting the full story out there, with out the editors own ideology been influenced with how the news story is conveyed/perceived. But more serious news and death has to be treated with respect! That is the key word. People need to realise that anything they publish weather it be on their own personal website/blog or social media network, is accessible and can cause momentum in the news hungry media forum. This as you can imagine causes a frenzy, an unnecessary and premature leak of a news story dealing with someone’s death! A death story, for the journalists own advantage makes me feel quite ill! that this is how we treat someone of a high caliber in the media profession, someone who you probably worked with! and this is how you show respect to Gerry Ryan and more importantly his family, who are left behind. I think people need to get a new perspective on life not just in real life but also digital life as it seems to be a media extension of life and news. I hope people have learned a valuable lesson on the correct use of social media and more importantly on respect.

    • Bergsie says:

      The question of ethical behaviour amongst journalists not just in relation to this ‘news’ event reminds me of the Robert Burns quote “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see oursel’s as others see us!. It seems that the only people questioning their ‘ethics’ are journalists themselves. So is it about ethics or the ‘scoop’?

      Self regulation and Free Speech V’s the reputation and personal feelings of others. Which in the long run do you think will win out?

    • prez palmer says:

      you can’t be serious? For better or for worse the new media has eclipsed standard journalism. decry ethical standards all you want but soon you’ll have to take your head out of the sand and adapt. Hopefully adapt and overcome.

    • john ryan says:

      Hugh, I think there’s a bit of fluff in your bellybutton.

    • chip says:

      I cant even tell what this story is.Freedom of the press is freedom. Dont allow anyone to stop it.

    • Catherine says:

      Interestingly, this article is used as a source in today’s Dictionary.com word of the day (for Manichean):

      http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday

      Link will only work today though…

    • Hugh says:

      Speaking of Twitter and journalistic ethics, I don’t know which is worse – the fake Geraldine Kennedy Twitter account (http://twitter.com/madam_editor) or the number of real Irish Times journalists who have chosen to play along with it. Wouldn’t the right thing to do here be to disengage? Seems like the Irish Times needs a social media policy too….

    • Seán B says:

      I couldn’t belive the comments you made about SATC2 on The View there the other week. You gotta show some love for Carrie & crew. Only messing, it was fecking gas.

      Any chance of a new post any time soon?

    • dara says:

      ethics in irish journalism is long since dead,
      all you have to do is open the irish times to miriam lord’s article,she repeatedly refers to the democratically elected leader of ireland as an ignorant f**cker,biffo means big ignorant f**ker from offaly,like him or hate him,this is simple tabloid name calling and has no place in quality meda ,how would she like being called a fib (fat ignorant bitch),i’m sure she wouldn’t
      when the traditional marque media outlet stoops to this level,where ese do the others have to go but completly into the gutter,
      quality journalism is about providing imformation,not cheap opinion,
      maybe those in the irish times should have a look inwards before telling everybody else how impure they are,or else join the irish independant in printing a tabloid paper,

      nothing more untrustworty than a lier
      at least “the daily sun” does not claim quality

    • Kynos says:

      In fairness if the guy made his living in the public eye his death necessarily is too. Public eye is quite unforgiving when it comes to sizing you up be if tor a thumbs up down or yer coffin. The ethics of reporting are get the scoop Gerry knew that well as anyone.

    • Jen says:

      I don’t think that Journalistic ethics have anything got to do with twitter… it’s not journalism.. it’s individuals posting personal opinions and views.
      From a personal point of view I would never refer to anybody’s death etc especially when it was still unconfirmed but thats just me.
      This is just freedom of speech, like it or not , everybody id entitled to it, not just people with tact and sensitivity!

    • phrage says:

      sounds like an editor of an archaic organ overtaken by technology elsewhere-journalism has dumbed itself down so it is rarely distinguihsable from the tweet and the comment rant and the blog. investigation analysis and well written reporting are rare from over paid and watered journos.


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