How Facebook outpaced traditional media in Grand Rapids

The news on Thursday, July 7 was unnerving for Grand Rapids natives. The headline on MLive read “Grand Rapids man tells mother on phone that he killed his wife, police responding”.

The article was brief, the update and live coverage blurbs chilling.

“Police blocking off neighborhood in standoff, telling neighbors to stay inside.”

“Police report multiple deaths in Northeast Grand Rapids.”

Updates mounted as the story gathered attention. People watched and waited in horror, not knowing who was dead or that this was the worst mass murder in Grand Rapids history; not knowing the whereabouts of alleged killer Rodrick Dantzler.

Police released descriptions of Dantzler and his vehicle. Additional shootings appeared to involve the suspect. The manhunt became a chase as he led police through downtown and onto a freeway. The story consumed local news and jumped to social media. During the chase the suspect moved into oncoming traffic, forcing others off the road. It didn’t end when his vehicle crashed. He fled on foot, not far from where seven people were found dead earlier that day, and kicked in a door. The hunt that held Grand Rapids hostage while Dantzler was at large was now a true hostage crisis. And coverage on Facebook was taking on and perhaps overtaking local television, radio and online news coverage.

Bouncing mainly between MLive.com (online home of the Grand Rapids Press, a Booth Bureau newspaper) and FOX 17 television for news and live police updates, the reports proved to be remarkably timely and thorough given the situation’s gravity. Facebook entered the picture when a friend from Detroit posted “Are you okay over there? I heard there was a big shooting.”

Local news had gone statewide and beyond. And Facebook rapidly became a news clearinghouse: People monitoring police scanners and multiple news resources provided updates faster than local media, possibly providing as much horror to those in affected areas as relief to those hoping to be out of harm’s way.

Through Facebook, people learned of both the hostage situation before it was announced on the news or MLive and of the presence of a third hostage who had been hiding. Facebook postings with links to online scanners and to blogs with firsthand commentary were shared and forwarded. Friends living near the crime scenes wrote of blockades and of not knowin

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g. We watched. We waited. We wrote.

I’d stepped back in front of the television as the latest news was broadcast: All hostages had been safely released. The gunman—after threatening to kill himself, threatening to kill others, wondering how to surrender, inquiring whether there were snipers and asking where to stand—turned his gun on himself and died of a self-inflicted shot to the head. I returned to my computer, to post this news for friends who’d watched and waited with Grand Rapids.

A sad and terrifying situation was handled incredibly well by the public and law enforcement alike. Seemingly, social media outpaced traditional media. Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Kevin Belk’s did not want to give his opinion of the media’s performance: “It’s up to the community to answer the question of how well media performed.”

Scott Winters, a longtime local news/talk radio host, was involved with all types of media that day as details unfolded. By the time of the police chase, he was listening to the police scanner and checking between local television stations WOOD TV8, WZZM 13 and FOX 17. He monitored local news/talk radio stations WOOD AM 1300 and WJRW 1340 AM, and followed MLive and Facebook. The next day, he filled in on WJRW for two hours and talked extensively about the coverage. And he noted that traditional TV and radio trailed the Internet and Facebook.

Winters found WOOD TV8 the most conservative, alluding to scanner information but not reporting it until confirmed. FOX 17 took the most reporting risks. WZZM 13 reported some scanner information heard. On the radio, WOOD AM failed to impress. While WJRW aired live play-by-play and updated listeners during the chase, WOOD aired a syndicated financial program. MLive received good marks from Winters, who placed the online source second only to Facebook.

“A lot of individuals, like me, were listening to the police scanner that evening,” Winters said. “It was interesting to hear the officer whispering while inside the house and talking on his radio over the scanner.”

Winters, a professional journalist, chose not to report all the news over the scanner, waiting for confirmation of information. His actions and the actions of others underscored the differences in professional and social media.

Amy L Charles is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Context crucial when judging social media

When Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, many people learned the news from Facebook. In fact, Pew Research Center reported that more than six percent of Americans overall and more than 14 percent of Americans aged 18-34 learned of bin Laden’s death that way. Even more important, Pew reported that 44 percent of media users who use Facebook learned of bin Laden’s death first on Facebook. The truth is, many people are getting their news from social media before traditional media is reporting the facts.

From the Midwest to the Middle East, social media play a role in providing information to the public. At times, it seems social media play a prominent role in providing information quickly — as long as the public digests it correctly.

When Rodrick Dantzler went on a shooting spree in Grand Rapids, Mich., social media played a pivotal role in providing information to those who needed information. At times, social media trumped traditional media in news being reported and information about what was happening where, and in discussing the safety of residents and bystanders. People posted updates, confirmed crime scene locations, commiserated over the day’s events and more.

Traditional news media are often in a difficult position, compared with the average poster who is near the action and has Facebook and Twitter access. The average poster relays information in a way not unlike that of an eyewitness or a primary source in a traditional media account, says Southern Illinois University Carbondale assistant professor Aaron Veenstra.

“People who post information like this have an insight into what’s happening, but no context,” Veenstra said. “They are able to give a piece of the puzzle. If enough people post you can start to construct what happened through these people. They play an important role in framing the traditional coverage.”

Context is important when examining how social media news is processed. In Grand Rapids, news/talk radio host Scott Winters spent the day of the Dantzler ordeal following traditional and social media, and listening to the police scanner. He reacted by reporting some scanner details on Facebook, but with his news background erred on the side of caution. Ot

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hers posted just about anything they heard — sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Credibility isn’t a major concern with many posting information on social media.

“For most people, the process of journalism is invisible,” Veenstra said. “They know what they see or read, but they don’t really understand the process that gets it there. They report exactly what they see. But they may not see all that is happening around them or have a context for all that is happening. There is no filtering.”

Veenstra describes people who present information this way as providing a journalistic service without using the tools of journalism.

But how long before a family member learns about a loved one’s death through Facebook or Twitter, before the information has been officially released? There is also an underlying fear of reporting something that may hinder law enforcement or put people in danger.

Most news agencies won’t report news without first fact-checking. But where news sources are concerned, social media are bounding ahead of traditional media. People who once joked, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true!” now realize that others might believe the Internet is all-knowing. People must seriously consider the veracity of what they read online and the credibility of the source, particularly in social media venues where most anyone with a computer could post what he or she deems news — no confirmation required.

At the same time, Veenstra pointed out that on the night bin Laden was killed, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was on the air filling time while waiting for President Barack Obama to make his announcement. Before the press figured out what was happening, Blitzer spent on-air time speculating about the news to come and creating numerous scenarios. He even speculated on possible retaliation scenarios, before the official announcement was made.

Speculation was rampant on social media that night as well.

Context may be the key word in examining social media in crisis situations. Traditional media cannot keep up with social media as events unfold. But the audience must keep in mind that what it receives from social media are snippets of information without context. Traditional media still play a role in providing context to what is happening.

Scott Lambert contributed to this story