If news coverage of the deadly shootout at Central Texas Marketplace is evidence of anything, it’s that — for all the criticism leveled at the news media — many in the public must now bear some responsibility, especially as social media such as Facebook allows each of us to not only comment but introduce coverage that is either unconfirmed or even conflicts with the standards of the so-called “legitimate news media.”
For example, should the news media have followed its traditional policy of temporarily withholding names of the nine individuals killed in Sunday’s clash between motorcycle gangsters in the Twin Peaks parking lot? Custom has long held that the press refrain from publishing names of shooting victims till families can be notified by law enforcement officials.
In this instance, some of our competitors in the news media who obtained names and autopsy results opted to ignore requests by Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton and so ran with names of the dead, even though their family members had not been contacted. Names included that of one local resident.
This dilemma is one that inspires spirited debate in newsrooms everywhere, especially when a story garners national headlines and the public hungers for more, even though it might collide with standards of decency, protocol and accuracy. Abiding by tradition, we opted to hold off till police could conduct the unpleasant work of notifying next of kin. It also gave us time to confirm related information.
Some might say that the dead of a motorcycle gang linked with drug trafficking, prostitution and violence rate no special consideration. Perhaps, but at least some of their family members might be due that small token of respect. In the days, weeks and months to come, these families will likely be treated to uncomfortable facts about their loved ones. If they’re contacted by police beforehand, they can steel themselves for grief and regret, then other grim revelations.
While our initial online story Tuesday briefly explained our policy, our Facebook page soon ran into unforeseen problems: While some readers appreciated our gesture of waiting for police to finish notifying family members of the dead, a handful — possibly thinking they were doing a public service — put links on our page to news outlets that did not wait for police to finish next-of-kin calls.
Finally, after holding to our policy all afternoon, we decided there was no point in not releasing the names by sundown, given that some people were posting links on our page to other news media sites as fast as we could eliminate them. Police told us they understood.
Newsroom decisions about revelations disturbing, embarrassing or traumatic are never easy, even for the veterans among us who count our readers as neighbors. As social media turns many of our readers into participants in the news-disseminating process, they too in time may come to understand the high standards we and our colleagues far and wide aspire to, even as we on occasion fall short.