Protecting an eyewitness means to save a life

What does it mean to protect an eyewitness in the social media age and how journalists can do that? These were the main questions raised during a panel discussion that took place on 9 April in the course of the tenth edition of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.

As social media becomes more and more important in the daily work of journalists, the impact it has on ordinary individuals who happen to be on the hot spot and contribute to a more accurate reporting increases. Often eyewitnesses are the first to experience the negative influences of an event and the last ones to receive a credit for their risky involvement. However, every journalist knows how valuable contributions from witnesses are, especially in crisis situations.

“Eyewitnesses are sources and we have the duty to protect them, besides working with them”, said Malachy Browne, Europe anchor with Browne spoke of the different methods to protect eyewitnesses on social networks, including encryption.

Fergus Bell, the founder Dig Deeper Media, presented various cases in which negligent journalistic behavior on social media in danger situations could lead to putting witness’s life at risk.

Speaking of their life, Claire Wardle from Tow Center for Digital Journalism put the emphasis on the fact that most eyewitnesses were never asked what they had to go through and often their images or videos were not even credited. “Journalists tend to focus on the breaking news event and forget that peoples’ names remain related to it even after the breaking factor has gone away”, said Wardle.

Josh Stearns, director Local News Lab with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation introduced several good practices on how to treat eyewitnesses on social media. One of them was the one-person-newsroom on Facebook called Jersey Shore Hurricane News which referred to everyone on the hot spot as a “contributor” and was an example of good practices when building a community with eyewitnesses.

“There are many ways to communicate with people in danger situations through the social media”, added Fegus Bell, but as a minimum standard every journalist should try to be polite, sensitive to what the individual is going through, make a clear request for the content the witness has produced, give all of his/her contact information and be clear as to how the content will be used.

By Stanislava Gaydazhieva