Paper's Decision to Twitter 3-Year-Old's Funeral Sparks Outrage

Critics Question Value of Giving a Play-by-Play of a Tragedy


Sept. 12, 2008—

A Colorado newspaper's decision to live blog the funeral of a 3-year-old boy with Twitter has prompted a flurry of criticism from the local media, bloggers and media ethicists.

Rocky Mountain News reporter Berny Morson covered the Wednesday funeral of Marten Kudlis, who died last week when a pickup truck careered into a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop in Aurora, Colo.

But instead of waiting until after the memorial service to publish a story, Morson sent real-time updates from his cell phone to the Rocky Mountain News' Web site using a micro-blogging service called Twitter.

The newspaper's use of the technology in this way has drawn the ire of journalists and bloggers from Colorado to the United Kingdom, who argue that the reporter essentially trivialized the tragedy by providing a play-by-play of the event.

"Today, Rocky Mountain News reporter Berny Morson took the notion of Twitter to staggeringly low depths," a Colorado Independent reporter wrote Wednesday after seeing the paper's report.

On its media blog, the U.K. newspaper Guardian said Morson was "going straight to the top of [its] 'Inappropriate Use of Technology' chart."

And popular political Weblog Daily Kos went so far as to call the incident "repulsive."

Most of Twitter's approximately 2.9 million members use the service to keep family members and friends up to date as they go about their daily lives. From their cell phones, members can send "tweets" -- 140-character, real-time messages -- about their plans for the day, people they just encountered or simply what they ate for lunch.

Some news organizations have started to adopt Twitter as a way to deliver breaking news alerts and better connect readers to major news events, such as political conventions or hurricanes.

But the Rocky Mountain News' decision to micro-blog a child's funeral raises new questions about appropriate -- and inappropriate -- uses of new technologies that blur the line between public and private moments.

"I think that reporters are often in the uncomfortable position of reporting from settings where people are in great grief," Samuel Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of "Letters to a Young Journalist," told "These situations call for the greatest understanding and discretion on the part of the reporter.

"To be putting real-time notes out there as opposed to waiting until the ceremony is over; there's an element of pillaging a private moment of grief that I'm uncomfortable with," he said.

Although Freedman emphasized that he holds the Rocky Mountain News in high regard, he said Twittering the event is "equivalent to a TV journalist doing a stand-up in the middle of a funeral. And I find that ghastly.

"A memorial service for a murdered, for a slain child is not a fit subject for play-by-play updates," he said.

Social networking tools enable powerful and instantaneous communication but, Freedman said, "just because the technology allows this doesn't mean that you're bound and destined to use the technology in this way."

The Rocky Mountain News did not respond to several messages left by

But Rabbi David J. Zucker, who officiated at Marten's service, said his view of the paper's decision to Twitter the funeral is different from those of the critics.

"I don't see anything on this [Web site] -- that Berny did -- is in anyway offensive," he said, adding that the coverage was professional and compassionate. "The way I see it is that it's somebody sharing to a wider community [that was] interested and felt connected to this sad event."

Emily Harrison, a Denver area actor, said that although she's not sure if she herself would use Twitter to cover the event, she didn't see a major difference between Twittering the event and writing about it later. If the family permitted reporters to attend the service, they should expect them to report however they can, she continued.

According to Gerry Smith, a mortuary manager at Fairmount Cemetery, reporters were not allowed in the chapel during the service, at the request of Marten's parents.

Smith, however, conceded that because a family member granted reporters permission to cover the event, a few journalists were indeed present.

Mike McPhee, a Denver Post reporter who covered the service for his paper, without Twitter, said he was given permission to enter the chapel by Marten's uncle. McPhee's understanding was that journalists could enter the chapel as long as they were not intrusive and refrained from using cameras.

But he told that Morson's Twittering was conspicuous and "highly uncalled for."

"We're at this emotional service and there was this reporter non-stop text messaging," he said. "How would you not notice?"

Smith, the mortuary manager, was dismayed to hear that the service received any media coverage at all. But he was especially surprised to learn that a reporter had live blogged about it and said it constituted an invasion of privacy.

"I call that texting, but that's something that we need to be aware of," he said. "So that when families say, 'I don't want anyone in the chapel,' we have to say, 'well, there's this new technology called Twitter and we don't have a way of knowing if they're there.'"

Although critics challenge the Rocky Mountain News' decision to live blog Marten's funeral for a variety of reasons, some critics say that the new technology itself can overwhelm the values and decision-making process.

"Now, with digital technology, we have all these tools and methods -- various forms of blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter and other forms of text communication," said Robert M. Steele, a visiting professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg Fla. "And there is a tendency and a danger to run headlong into the arena of news events with these new tools.

"And that headlong rush, whether it's well-intended or skewed by business interests, can be disastrous." he added.

Although one can't detect all the potential landmines a new technology might present, Steele said he hoped Rocky Mountain News editors had substantial conversations about what they were going to do and why they were going to do it, adding that, regardless of their reasoning, it was "risky territory."

The issue is not black and white, Steele emphasized. But he raised a question: "Was there a legitimate journalistic purpose served in the telling of the story?"

New technologies have great potential. But without considering the issues and implications before employing them, the harm to individuals' and journalism's credibility can be profound, he said.

"It's an era -- this digital era -- when many journalists are experimenting, often in real time, and the consequences can be either remarkable or disastrous."