Sunday, June 17, 2012

With Great Tweeting Comes Great Responsibility

As I reflect on the various #SMEM developments from the past week I am somewhat appalled at how much negative attention was showered upon the Larimer County Sheriff's Office (@LarimerSheriff).  The criticism began after the Sheriff dared to ask the media to refrain from immediately publishing video or photos of homes damaged by the High Park Fire (#HighParkFire, #Cofire).  Depending on whose account you read it seemed as if the First Amendment itself had gone up in smoke!

The Denver Post shed light on the issue when they published an article commenting on the Sheriff's request and subsequent media response. The article summed up the issue stating:
"At times the journalistic imperative to deliver news clashed with authorities' efforts to control the flow of information  
On Monday, the Larimer County Sherriff's Office issued a request to the media not to show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to homeowners.
Station managers acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue, but turned aside the plea on journalistic grounds."

In the #SMEM world this relatively tame article was quickly drowned out by very loud voices which looked to condemn the Sheriff for issuing his request.  Blogger Dave Statter (@STATter911 wrote a flippant article which, in extreme sarcastic flare, outlined his view of the perceived government clamp down. You can read his article here: 

Those ghouls are at it again: TV stations turn down Colorado Sheriff's request not to show burned or burning homes.
This was followed up by an article from Emergency Management Magazine (@EmergencyMgtMag) entitled: Should Law Enforcement Determine What News Media Can Show or Not Show.  The article, written by Gerald Baron, did at least consider that the Sheriff's motives were not entirely maniacal:

"What is the most surprising is that the Larimer County Sheriff's office would make that request. Maybe they did it for political reasons, showing their sensitivity, while realizing that what they were asking was out of line and totally unrealistic."
But that was as forgiving as it got.  Baron concluded the article stating:

"But, maybe not. I suspect that this sad story is one more example of how some authorities are simply not understanding the world in which they now live, a world that has changed dramatically over the past few years. Larimer County Sheriff: Wake up, you are living in the Internet age."
Seriously? Do we have to jump to such harsh conclusions?  The Larimer Sheriff, though not perfect, is well aware of the Internet age.  They have a Twitter account (@LarimerSheriff) which has been pushing out constant updates (they are even mastering the art of the hashtag!) Their counterpart, @LarimerCounty, is likewise participating in the Internet information outreach campaign via Twitter and via their website.  Both entities also have corresponding Facebook accounts that are also involved in the effort.
Clearly the Larimer County Sheriff's Office is aware that we are living in an Internet age.  If nothing else the following tweets illustrate this:

The fact that @LarimerSheriff responded to this issue via a Twitter conversation with @CalFireNews is a clear example showing that the Sheriff's Office's has a strong understanding of the Internet age.

Now let's take a close look at the Sheriff's message:
"The Sheriff's Office asked that press not show burned homes of people who had not been notified yet. Not controlling the press."
Can we in the #SMEM community calm down and simply take the Sheriff's request at face value? The Sheriff by no means squashed the 1st Amendment.  He simply asked the media to give him some time to deliver horrible news to affected families.

Is it too much to ask that everyone exercise some basic civility and responsibility even while freely exercising their First Amendment rights?  Ours certainly is a brave new world where information flows freely and swiftly but that by no means must lead to a world where basic manners and rules are antiquated or defunct.

I have begun to use the phrase, "With Great Tweeting, Comes Great Responsibility".  Let's face it, when we, the public, or the media press "send" our messages, pictures, and videos are immediately broadcast to the world.  This is a great and powerful tool which must be taken advantage of by the all entities to include the government, media and public.  Yet this same fact of immediate broadcast capability does not diminish our responsibility to ensure that the message is accurate and appropriately delivered.  On the contrary, our new found power only increases our responsibility.

When I consider the Larimer County Sheriff's request I see a reasonable request that simply attempts to allow the managing agency to make important notifications before a family's pain and suffering slaps them in the face via live television or live tweet.

To close, I am must share that I am disappointed in some members of our #SMEM community.  I expect more from us.  I expect that we would embrace my new favorite maxim, "With Great Tweeting Comes Great Responsibility".  Let's encourage everyone to go forth and exercise their First Amendment rights, but let's also ask them to do so wisely and with great care. 

Just because we can inform the world by hitting "send" does not mean we always should!


  1. Making such a request is at best a useless exercise. There are simply too many channels where info is available and broadcasters (including the public on social media) to keep news bottled up anymore ... and that includes showing pictures of homes that have burned down ...

    Just shows that onus is now on authorities to move at the speed of their audiences (the speed of social networks)and use the tools they use (mobile tech) or become irrelevant ...

    Message competition is the keyword of the day ... not message control ...if you can't occupy the public space during a disaster and put your response under the best possible light ... others will tell the story for you !

  2. I must agree with Patrice. While I in no way doubt the genuine motives of the agency, their request was one that it out of line with current media practices and public expectations. In the US, the Department of Defense has been dealing with this very issue for several years as it relates to casualty notifications to families. It is time we (public safety) find ways to speed up rather than asking others to slow down because the fact of the matter is that they will not do so.

  3. (Part 2)

    I could understand, though wouldn’t always agree, if the passions were running high because the videographer showed a victim (especially a dead body). Most local TV stations these days don’t even show body bags, much less bodies.

    For people to be outraged about showing a burning car (or a burning home) is just ridiculous. Those writing in outraged generally felt the trooper should have the final say over what can and can’t be shot in a public place. To put that decision making into the hands of a uniformed and armed government official goes against the freedoms this country was founded on.

    The incident reminded me that many in the public and in public safety, are willing to gut the First Amendment, because of their strong anti-news media bias (BTW, I am also critical of many real sins committed by the news media).

    Since that Connecticut story I have run many other videos and pictures of burning homes where people have died and even firefighter helmet-cam videos of victims being rescued from fires (some who were in cardiac arrest and weren’t revived). There haven’t been ANY complaints about those images. And why is that? Because in these cases there were no government officials chastising the news media and also, in some of the cases, the videos were shot by those in public safety.
    I contend if the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office hadn’t brought up this absurd request, no one would have cared about the images. In fact, my gut tells me that many who were victims of the fire learned of the fate of their homes from these images well before being notified and were grateful to have that timely information.

    For decades TV news has shown live video of the impact of wildfires and no one complained because they were showing burning homes (at the Museum of Radio & TV I have seen a clip of KTLA-TV’s very early 1960s live chopper video showing homes burning around Los Angeles). Suddenly the incident command at one of those wildfires thinks the news shouldn’t show burning homes and once again the news media becomes a bunch of ghouls. It’s absurd. Read some of the comments of those supporting the sheriff’s request and you will see just how absurd it is. I decided to highlight the ridiculous nature of all this with my own ridiculous column.

    And to illustrate this point further, on Friday I saw a close-up video from one Colorado neighborhood that was burning. It was posted to FB within a couple of hours of the homes being destroyed. I doubt the homeowners had all been notified by then. Was it those ghouls in the news media at it again? Or was it some ghoulish neighbor with a camera? No, it was taken by a firefighter and there was not one complaint it had occurred.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment.

    Dave Statter

  4. New rules from Sheriff Smith has in Larimer County has me thinking that my original backing of him wasn't strong enough. I am pushing him to seek higher office. The public has longed for a guy like this to put the press in its place.