Boston Marathon tragedy spurs social media questions in newsrooms nationwide

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comApril 16, 2013 

I didn't post a trivia question Monday.

It's a standard 4 p.m. weekday fixture on the Ledger-Enquirer's Facebook page. We post a trivia question designed to engage our 8,000-plus fans. It's usually simple, lighthearted and fun.

But on Monday, trivia time came about an hour after I learned about the Boston Marathon bombings. Even though the bombings didn't happen in our city, I felt posting trivia would suggest a disregard for a national tragedy.

I assume social media managers in newsrooms nationwide faced similar decisions Monday.

It's one thing when a major public safety event happens in your coverage area. In that case, your social media strategy is clear. During the duration of the crisis -- and likely for some time afterward -- devote 100 percent of your tweets and Facebook posts to giving people the information they need.

What happens when the public safety event happens hundreds or thousands of miles away from your readers?

Sculpting your social media strategy is difficult, because you don't want to appear completely oblivious to what's dominating national attention. But you likely also realize that if people want national news, your local paper's Facebook page might not be their first stop. I'm typing this article roughly 24 hours after the Boston Marathon bombings. The Boston events are absent from our website's most-read stories of the day.

In the case of the Boston Marathon, there was a local connection: multiple readers from our coverage area participated in the race, and some of our readers likely had friends and family members running. So from roughly 4 p.m. Monday until midnight, our tweets and Facebook posts focused entirely on Boston.

At 10 p.m., I decided to forgo posting our weekly "Dancing with the Stars" recap on Twitter -- once again, I feared appearing blind to the Boston tragedy's magnitude.

Was I being too sensitive?

Accusations of insensitivity aren't uncommon as newspapers use social media amid national tragedy. Choose the wrong words and you could be accused of using the day's events to boost your online fan count.

Exhibit A? The controversial practice of filling Facebook posts with lines like this: "Share this post or click 'like' to express your sympathy and condolences for the victims of today's tragedy."

Some say it's a valid way to unite a community amid emotional uncertainty. Media outlets are doing nothing wrong with these posts, they maintain. Others argue it's a selfish way to use someone's heartache to boost your online engagement numbers.

On Facebook, "likes" and "shares" are widely regarded as ways to increase your fan count. They arguably make your posts more visible, which heightens awareness of your brand.

The key, of course, lies in intent. Tuesday afternoon, I asked one of our photographers to create a new cover photo for our Facebook page paying tribute to victims in Boston. My Facebook post drawing attention to the new photo attracted a single comment: "Really?"

It made me reevaluate my decision to post the picture at the top of our Facebook page. Maybe he was suggesting I was trying to gain fans through the photo. Or maybe his comment reflected a sense of social media fatigue over the Boston events.

That's a concern, too. It's one thing to immediately inform people of a tragedy. But if the tragedy isn't in your coverage area, and you've finished exploring all local angles, when is it OK to post unrelated content on social media?

We began Tuesday by posting local news items unrelated to Boston on Facebook and Twitter. Nobody complained.

Technology has impacted multiple aspects of our culture, and grieving is no exception.

Assuming it's handled tactfully, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable for newspapers to provide readers with Facebook cover photos honoring victims of a national tragedy. Nor is it completely unacceptable for journalists to ask readers to convey seemingly complex emotions with a simple "like."

But these decisions can't be made spontaneously. They require conversations that channel a humanness that extends beyond arbitrary engagement quotas.

We returned to our trivia routine Tuesday.

The trivia question was easy. My decision to post it was anything but trivial.

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