One of the benefits of #iphonereporting is that the journalist can quickly share photos, videos, audio reports and text descriptions of an ongoing dangerous situation.
Yet, misusing the power of a mobile device can have deadly consequences.
Armed with an iPhone, content creation apps, and social media, a reporter is able to provide a vivid picture of a SWAT standoff to a huge audience within seconds, but those modern tools need to be tempered with old-school journalistic judgment and restraint.
As an example, let’s say an armed man is holding a hostage inside a home.
Experienced reporters know that a journalist should avoid describing operational details of the standoff, while it is happening.
Describing SWAT team movements, tactics, and strategies in real-time may result in an action-packed Twitter feed. It may also result in people being killed.
What not to do
A reporter who photographs and tweets, or simply describes seeing a police sharpshooter crawling across a roof to get into position is putting several lives at risk.
Describing the location of SWAT members provides information to the hostage-taker that could jeopardize the operation.
A distraught hostage-taker, intent on making a point through the media, could fire at the sharpshooter, or kill the hostage.
If a reporter has a law enforcement source who is willing to share police strategy — for instance, attempting to lure the hostage-taker toward a window — tweeting that information might be a “Twitter scoop,” but it could also sabotage the plan to free the hostage.
The responsible way to live-tweet a standoff
So, what should the reporter report online and on the air as the standoff is happening?
- Any information gathered at a news conference is considered “on the record.” As always, it is not a reporter’s job to simply parrot what law enforcement says, but in a standoff situation police sometimes communicate with a hostage-taker through the media. The decision of whether to repeat the police message verbatim lies with you and your news director. In a life-or-death situation, most news organizations will comply.
- Tweeting images of the standoff gathered behind the police crime scene tape is fine.
- Describe how the standoff is affecting the neighborhood, including traffic tie-ups, school lockdowns, and neighbor reactions to the situation. If neighbors mention the hostage-taker or the hostage’s name and background, don’t just tweet that information without verifying. Hold onto that information until the appropriate time, generally after police have released it. Consider how family members would feel if they heard the details from you, rather than authorities.
- While the situation continues, gather photos, videos, and natural sound that can be tweeted and reported upon after the standoff is resolved.
Remember, bad or dangerous information that you report on Twitter will likely spread faster than you can imagine, and is nearly impossible to retract.
Will your journalistic reputation or someone else’s life be put at risk by your Twitter scoop?
Consider the ramifications before hitting Tweet.