Social Media's Effects on Police Work
May 20, 2011
PORTSMOUTH — Facebook’s and Twitter’s roles in spreading the news of Camden Hughes’ death and his mother’s subsequent arrest highlight both the good and bad of social media, said a Northeastern University criminologist.
The 6-year-old was found dead Saturday evening in South Berwick, Maine. He had no signs of identification on him, and that evening, Maine State Police released a computer-generated image of the boy in hopes that someone would recognize him.
It wasn’t long before a woman named Kendra Jacobs took the photo and posted it on Facebook, creating a page asking if anyone could identify the boy. As of Thursday, that page had garnered more than 181,000 followers and proved an important part of the investigation.
“Many of the tips came in as a result of that Facebook connection,” said Steve McCausland, public information officer for Maine State Police.
He described the hundreds of phone calls and e-mails police received a “gratifying and sincere” response and a “unique component” of the case.
The Camden Hughes case also marked the largest media focus on Maine State Police since the arsenic poisonings in New Sweden, Maine, in 2002, McCausland said. Authorities in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have thanked the media for assisting with the case.
But on Wednesday, as details began to leak out about a woman later identified as Julianne McCrery, 42, of Irving, Texas, who was taken in for questioning by Massachusetts State Police, Boston-area news outlets began releasing unofficial information through Web sites like Twitter.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said those tweets raise significant questions about ethical journalism. He said the immediacy of sites like Facebook and Twitter has “created a tremendous amount of competition to be the first with the story.”
He said the 24-hour news cycle can keep an audience’s attention, but tweets are often “flawed in terms of accuracy, and once they’re out there, they can be repeated, though they may be erroneous. … Things can be taken down, but once they’ve been reported, it’s hard to control re-tweets and repeats of information.”
It started Wednesday with brief blurbs revealing that McCrery was Hughes’ mother. Small details broke throughout the day, with many still unverified by authorities at the time of their release into social media. For example, ABC News and WBZ-TV of Boston quoted sources saying McCrery gave her son an overdose of cough syrup. His official cause of death is asphyxiation, and Susan Morrell, senior assistant attorney general for New Hampshire, refused to comment on the cough syrup claims.
Fox, who writes a blog for Boston.com, said media outlets must be careful to ensure they are sources of news, not rumors.
“Twitter does carry rumor, and newspapers don’t,” he said.
McCausland said the media rumor mill is “a Massachusetts thing. It doesn’t occur in Maine, and I don’t believe it occurs in New Hampshire. … It was not an issue for us.”