It’s always dicey to question technology’s forward march: do so, and you risk being labeled a fogey, a Luddite, an enemy of Progress. But every now and then, something happens that makes it acceptable to question whether the new and shiny is necessarily the good. Nuclear power had Three Mile Island. Cloning had Dolly, the short-lived sheep. And Twitter — or, more precisely, the use of Twitter by journalists — had the Rocky Mountain News’ (RMN) coverage, earlier this month, of the funeral of three-year-old Marten Kudlis.
Some background: on September 4, Francis Hernandez, a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Guatemala, broadsided a truck in Aurora, Colorado. The truck and Hernandez’s vehicle then careened into a Baskin-Robbins, killing the truck’s two occupants and Kudlis, who was in the ice-cream store with his mother. The tragedy quickly became fodder for anti-illegal-immigrant activists, such as former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who accused Colorado’s Democratic governor and Denver’s mayor of having “blood on their hands.” (Hernandez had been arrested for traffic violations in the past but had never been reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency that could have had him deported.)
Fast forward to five days after the crash, when RMN reporter Berny Morson used Twitter to report live from Kudlis’s funeral. Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social-networking mechanism that lets individuals give and receive real-time status updates — but only in 140 characters or fewer. (Here’s how twitter.com puts it: “Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”) Sign up for Joe Blow’s Twitter feed, for instance, and you’ll be contacted every time Joe has something he’d like to share. Sign up for a news organization’s general Twitter feed, and you’ll be informed when new articles are published. Sign up for a specific feed, and you’ll get updates from a particular correspondent, or on a particular topic.
In the case of Kudlis’s funeral, that meant such observations as the following (where “RMN_Berny” serves as the reporter’s online handle):
RMN_Berny: people again are sobbing. rabbi again asks god to give
marten everlasting life.
09:46 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
RMN_Berny: pallbearers carry out coffin followed by mourners.
09:48 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
RMN_Berny: cars queueing [sic] up to follow hearse
09:59 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
RMN_Berny: procession begins
10:01 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
RMN_Berny: people gathering at graveside
10:14 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
RMN_Berny: coffin lowered into ground
10:18 AM September 10, 2008 from txt
If you think that seems tasteless, you’re not alone. The Colorado Independent, which first drew attention to the episode, accused Morson of taking Twitter to “staggeringly low depths,” and called the coverage “[u]tterly, and unforgivingly, inconceivable.”
Not everyone agreed, however. “TV could have carried it live, as they did Princess Di’s funeral, or that of Ronald Reagan,” one Independent reader noted. “What is the difference between Twitter and TV[?]”
When RMN publisher John Temple weighed in a few days later, meanwhile, he questioned the execution of the Twittered coverage — but not the Twittering itself. “We must learn to use the new tools at our disposal,” argued Temple. “Yes, there are going to be times we make mistakes, just as we do in our newspaper. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something. It means we need to learn to do it well.”