• City Room: The two avenues for news
    November 19,2012

    When Seth Parry was shot on Brooklyn Street on Thursday afternoon, the word spread like wildfire.

    While Parry’s injuries were not life-threatening, the incident, which occurred shortly after 5:30 p.m., created a cascade of information.

    Within minutes of the 911 call, which was made by someone Parry was with at the time of the shooting, The Times Argus had a photographer and a reporter on the scene. They did their jobs by trying to gather information, observe and provide information for the waiting public. At the same time the news staff showed up, I posted the news on The Times Argus’ Facebook page.

    What happened next almost defies logic.

    As the photographer took photos of police interviewing people at the scene, and police searching the street with bright lights, and the reporter waited for confirmation of facts from the Barre Police Department, the post on Facebook started to tell a story.

    In minutes, the comments attached to the post had identified Parry, given away his address, his criminal record, personal information, and even speculation as to why he might have been shot.

    The people posting on Facebook started turning on one another, picking sides on whether Parry was a victim, a target, or may have even deserved to be attacked.

    Before 6 p.m., a half hour after a gunshot cut through the late afternoon rush-hour din, an entire cybercommunity was on alert, taking inventory, and perpetuating — in words — the attack that had just been performed on the street.

    Meanwhile, the reporter and photographer were stuck in the dark and cold, being stonewalled by the police, who said the incident was under investigation. And while it did not appear that anyone in law enforcement was searching for the masked gunman who had fled after the scuffle and shooting, the online world was throwing caution to the wind, speculating, outing underworld secrets, floating rumors and, some might conclude, creating diversions to throw people tracking the public discussion off certain scents.

    Very quickly, the Facebook discussion took on a Wild West feel. With people clearly identified as the “posters,” the discussion went from “edge of the cyber-road” observing and gossiping to wholesale anarchy. Facts blurred with innuendo.

    For me, it reminded me of the Comments we allow on stories and articles behind our paywall. In the days before the paywall, anyone could make a comment, taking cover behind anonymity. The paywall allows us to track those mean-spirited, fight-picking commenters, and as a result, we see far fewer of them today. The paywall gave a name to a comment, and skimmed off the scum.

    Thursday’s online discourse had me wondering why we had attracted this particular crowd, and why this shooting was so meaningful to them.

    Our print version of the news provides vetted, processed, credible information. That Facebook post was raw information, unconfirmed and thrown into the ether for free. As fast as it was posted, it twisted and turned into something altogether different. Some people tried to keep the discussion fair and honest, but they were outnumbered.

    Social media, in some ways, has become nothing more than scanner traffic for certain followers. Ironically, those users are considered Friends on Facebook, and they can sit around and “like” threats and disparaging remarks.

    There was a huge demographic of readers who never saw the ugly strings of spite and vitriole about Barre, its reputation and some of its citizens.

    It was disheartening for me to watch this viral, real-time disfigurement of our community taking place. I was grateful for the work of my staffers and their professionalism. The incident reminded me that facts always are most important in any pursuit of the truth.

    Because with “friends” like these, you really don’t need enemies.

    Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.

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