Karen Peterson: Social media raise question: What is news?

EXECUTIVE EDITOROctober 13, 2013 

Today we’ll play a round of You Be the Editor.

Two topics are circulating on social media in your community, and readers are calling to ask why you’re not covering them. You must decide whether they are stories for Your News Tribune.

Topic No. 1: A Tacoma mother posted on Facebook about her encounter last Sunday with a man taking pictures of her kids. She was exiting a public library in the North End, she said, when he took pictures of her 4-, 5- and 7-year-olds without her permission.

She wrote: “ALERT!!! NORTH TACOMA PARENTS!!! This man took pictures of my children without asking for my approval or even acknowledging me when I called out to him. When I did confront him and asked what he was planning on doing with them, his response “Whatever I want.” I immediately alerted the police. Yesterday, a friend saw him taking pictures of kids without consent again. She also alerted police. He lives in the North End in the Proctor Area. BE AWARE!!! Please share! I don’t want pictures of my kids in someones (sic) hands that I don’t know. Especially creepy people.”

She didn’t name the man, but took pictures of him walking away and posted those as well. She also printed fliers and took them to local schools and businesses.

More than 2,200 people had shared the Facebook post by Friday. Others commented: “So scary!! Ill keep my eye out!” and “Whoa! Mega creepy! You go, Mama Bear. Get ’em.”

You receive an email from a North End businessman who has seen the fliers. He knows the photographer, who has been taking pictures around the city for decades. The photographer has shown his work in art galleries and sells his pictures on a website. They’re mainly of local scenery, but there are several street shots that include adults and children.

Police tell the mother and your reporter the man has no criminal record, is a professional photographer and has committed no crime. Anyone can stand on a public sidewalk and take a picture.

News story or not?

Topic No. 2: On Monday, a woman who says she’s from Puyallup but living in the Cayman Islands posts on Facebook that a Trader Joe’s store is replacing Summit Trading Co., which is closing this month.

She writes: “Trader joes has officially purchased the old summit trading building on canyon road. Due to the current use it shouldn’t take long for a remodel and reopening!!! Woohoo bring on the Joes!!”

She doesn’t say how she knows it, but her post is shared 450 times, is picked up on Twitter and leads to calls into your newsroom demanding to know the truth.

Your reporter can’t reach the Summit owners, but finds no record of a building sale. A Trader Joe’s spokeswoman says the company has no plans to open in or near Puyallup for at least two years.

Do you write about it?

(Cue “Jeopardy” music here.)

As you may have guessed, these topics really did circulate last week on social media. More and more, we’re forced to decide whether to write about what other people post online. You may have ruled differently, but the TNT chose not to write about the mom and the photographer. We did write about the Trader Joe’s rumor.

Here was our thinking on the first story: After Tacoma police told us the photographer had done nothing wrong, we considered writing a story just to clear up the matter. But while the mother reacted out of concern for her children, at some point the comment stream turned into fear-mongering. (Also, the mother’s public Facebook profile includes many pictures of her children.) If the mother’s description of the encounter was accurate, the photographer should have handled the situation better. Even though we could have told both sides of the story, we decided to let it die rather than fan the hysteria.

On the second story: A simple call to Trader Joe’s dispelled the rumor. We wrote a blog post that quickly re-circulated on Facebook and Twitter. That doesn’t mean we want to expend our reporting resources to chase down every rumor, but if this had been true, it would have been real news. Also in this case, no person’s reputation was at risk if we wrote more.

Generally, however, we think our time is better spent reporting on what is happening in our community rather than on what isn’t.

HELP OUR FRIEND LIAM

Last week, we got a handwritten letter from Liam, a third-grade student from Gages Lake, Ill. His teacher, Ms. Rudolph, also wrote. Her class is learning about different parts of the country and is asking people to send in a postcard from their state. It should include their name and profession, why they live where they do, and any additional information they can share about local wildlife, landmarks and outdoor activities.

Liam asked us to share his request with readers. If you’d like to help Liam, please send your postcard to: Ms. Kristina Rudolph’s Class, Woodland Elementary West School, 17371 W. Gages Lake Road, Gages Lake, IL 60030.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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