Yesterday morning a lone gunman fired a shotgun more than 40 times inside a federal courthouse in Las Vegas; by the time he was killed by authorities he had murdered one security guard and injured a federal marshal. The horrific incident played live on local news channels, eventually wending its way to the national news networks who breathlessly broke away from their regularly scheduled programming to bring us the tragedy already in progress. Bloggers, Tweeters and other e-journalists also leaped to cover this “hot story” and by the end of the day the ugly underbelly of social media had truly bared its soullessness.
Maybe it was because this incident took place a few miles from our offices, or maybe my cynicism is still on Christmas holiday, or maybe it’s because Twitter, You Tube and Social Media have recently enjoyed such unabashedly positive accolades as shining new pillars of the media landscape, but whatever it was – as more than 40 bullets were strewn about a federal courthouse – I was not proud to be part of the next generation of new media.
YouTube or MeTube?
Let’s start with the video of the incident posted on You Tube thanks to “Citizen of the Year,” Nicholas Gramenos. Imagine you are walking to work at 8am and you hear repeated gunfire: do you a) call 911, b) investigate the situation and see if you can assist, or c) break out your camera-phone and start filming from a block away, complete with laugh track (“Heck of a morning for jury duty,” quips Mr. Gramenos, who opted for choice (c)). The video, complete with Mr. Gramenos’ insensitive commentary was replayed for much of the day on CNN, and he no doubt feels as if he now has the ultimate cocktail party anecdote. Too bad it came via the blood of the dead in this tragedy.
The Citizen Journalist has been with us for decades, however with the advent of Social Media it seems as if we now tend to be more Journalist Citizens. First, let’s get the pictures, then (maybe) see if we can help. Remember Janis Krums? Thanks to his iPhone camera, he was the first to Twitter the image of US Air 1549 after it crash-landed on the Hudson River, narrowly avoiding catastrophe. The pilot of that aircraft, Captain “Sully” Sullenberg declined interviews for almost a month after the incident, but you can read Mr. Krums’ blog here (http://bit.ly/7aYhHF) posted soon after the incident, where he mulls over his new-found “fame” and his exciting live TV appearances on MSNBC. As if distributing images of this near-disaster were an achievement of some sort, despite the fact the pilot of the plane – the actual hero – chose to eschew his “celebrity du jour.” I guess Mr. Krums is justified as he now has the ultimate cocktail party anecdote.
Tweet Your Way to a Pulitzer
As the Twitter stream about the Las Vegas courthouse shootings heated up from various Las Vegas journalists sharing breaking news about the tragedy, one Twitter post stood out. It came from a Las Vegas freelance writer who at 3pm tweeted:
http://twitpic.com/(redacted) – The glory screenshot. Look what’s the top Google News story right now.
The Twitpic was a screen grab of the Google News Top Stories section displaying the reporter’s piece from the New York Times, complete with the headline “Two Killed In Las Vegas Courtroom.” The fact that a journalist on assignment from the New York Times felt compelled to blast this self-congratulatory one-liner before the crime scene was even closed is a testament to the rash poor judgment sometimes manifested by Social Media. I’m sure the writer’s fifteen minutes of Google fame are cold comfort to the family of Seth Cooper, the 65-year-old security worker who died in the shooting.
Say it with Hallmark… or 140 characters
As the day wore on, the Twitter landscape changed. Gone were the breaking news updates, or the tweets linking to stories about the courthouse shooting incident. Instead came an onslaught of condolences tweets. They came from a variety of sources; individuals, marketing agencies, news outlets, all posting 140 characters of text message pidgin lingo meant to… meant to what? Express condolences to those involved in this tragedy? As if those affected by the incident were huddled around TweetDeck waiting for words of comfort? As if they searched #lasvegasshooting, seeking a few words posted that would ease their trauma? What exactly was the point of these terse missives of supposed sadness? This kind of on-line posturing is a bizarre phenomenon to which Social Media has given birth. It’s a narcissistic Boolean complex that seems to follow the logic of:
If A: Something tragic has happened.
Then B: I should have a strong emotion to that occurrence.
Therefore C: Here it is: Spewed in a hastily constructed TWEET for someone… oh please, anyone… to see.
There has been much debate about Shellie Ross tweeting about her son’s death from the hospital waiting room (http://bit.ly/6igSsQ). I am, in no way, attempting to author the top 5 ways to deal with tragedy via Social Media. Everyone deals with tragedy in his or her own way.
In today’s media landscape, however, sometimes it seems as if we are novice violinists who have been handed a prized Stradivarius. We know Social Media is something precious, something to be valued and something with which we can make beautiful music, but in our inexperienced novice hands sometimes it can make a distasteful discordant din.
As 40 bullets echoed through a federal courthouse in my community, I heard that discordant din. I realized that for all its potential, Social Media is not is panacea of new-world communication, a glorious tool appropriate to be used for every conceivable occasion, but rather it is a medium that requires the aspects of governance and decorum that we expect from all other facets of our fourth estate: freedom and free speech without sordid individualism for the sole purpose of base fame and egoism. As this new and exciting medium evolves, let’s hope it develops some higher standards that recognize when a situation mandates coverage with a serious journalistic tact without the self-serving bluster of wanton Social Media. And for our Journalist Citizens, let’s realize that sometimes life demands more than seeking a “great” cocktail party anecdote.
Michael Coldwell is managing partner at BRAINtrust Marketing + Communications
email@example.com or @coldwellm