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.