Twitter at Colorado Funeral Sparks Ethical Debate

By September 17, 2008

"What are you doing?" Would you answer this question if you are a reporter at a funeral? Three-year-old Marten Kudlis was killed last week in an accident involving cars plowing into an ice cream shop in Aurora, CO. The parents allowed press coverage of the funeral, and Berny Morson of Rocky Mountain News liveblogged from the chapel and burial site via 27 Twitter updates. Since then, controversy has sprung up about the nature of on-site blog practice, the professionalism of the newspaper and the journalist, the morbidity and inappropriate coverage of the funeral... all aspects of the basic question: Is it okay to Twitter a funeral?

Apparently this was not just any funeral. Because the accident was caused by an illegal immigrant with a lengthy arrest record, there was much local interest in the story. Since it was not just a regular, anonymous death, there was more reason to cover the day's event. Many treatments of the decision to liveblog may have not taken the unique interest level into account. Rocky Mountain News was not just using a random event to try out this new Twitter thing.

Journalism professor Samuel Freedman referred to the coverage as ""equivalent to a TV journalist doing a stand-up in the middle of a funeral. And I find that ghastly." Other related responses proclaim the play-by-play approach supposedly trivializes the grief of the people involved.

Live coverage of an event usually connotes the importance of an event. In this instance, many have interpreted this coverage in the exact opposite manner. The fault lies not in the coverage, nor even in the content, but simply in the way that the posts were written. The terse tweets are too easily interpreted, eliciting some to call them "compassionate," others say they are "intrusive and morbid."

While the Netiquette debates rage on, this debate seems less about actual technological disporia, and more about journalistic quality control.

Editor's Update: Here's the link to Berny Morson's Twitter page

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