Social media is changing emergency, investigation landscape

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal Neighbors lean on a car as Lee County sheriff's deputies investigate the scene of a shooting involving a Verona police officer on Sept. 3.

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal
Neighbors lean on a car as Lee County sheriff’s deputies investigate the scene of a shooting involving a Verona police officer on Sept. 3.

By JB Clark

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Dozens of curious bystanders from the surrounding neighborhoods watched as the Lee County Sheriff’s Office investigated a shooting in Verona Sept. 3, asking each other what happened but all admitting they didn’t see.

“Did you get a picture,” one onlooker could be heard asking another, “I already got it on Instagram,” the other replied.

A photo, similar to the one the onlooker took of the dead body lying near Verona City Park, made its way back to the deceased man’s family. Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green said that is how the family first found out about the death – through a cellphone photo.

Cellphones and social media have changed the way people do everything from basic communication to shopping and work.

Green and Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said the tool also has changed their jobs. While they believe the public has a right to know, they also have a duty to share information in a sensitive and accurate manor, especially in social media.

Green said families who find out about a deceased loved one on Facebook or through a cellphone photo often hear an inaccurate account of what happened and are even more upset than they would have been if told by an investigator or minister.

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said the use of social media in emergency and crime scene situations often starts the spread of incorrect and sometimes damaging information.

“Once you take that pictures and put it out there, it’s out there and you can’t take it back,” Johnson said. “People begin to form their opinions and flood our office with calls.” His investigators must then divert their resources to correcting incorrect information.

His office often will wait to release information so they know the only people who know the details, like the number of bullets fired, are the suspect and investigator.

“On social media, if you put everything out there, it broadens the scope of who knows the information and hinders the investigation,” he said. “We’ve had that happen on several occasions.”

Both Johnson and Green are quick to point out people standing behind the crime scene tape and on public property have every right to take any picture and say whatever they want.

Johnson said many social media users don’t realize they can be held civilly and criminally responsible for information they share or repeat on social media.

When releasing information to the public, Johnson has an understanding with media members that one person will act as a mouthpiece for his office and information will be released at a time when his office is certain it is correct.

Charlie Mitchell, assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, said increased cellphone capabilities add a level of certainty and a level of unease.

Journalists at a crime scene have no more rights than ordinary citizens and any privilege or release of information is based on trust.

Mitchell said the trust is earned by way of the journalist’s record of good (or bad) judgment.

The trust extended to many media agencies by law enforcement officials around the world stems from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics which he said, “starts with the notion that you should serve the truth but do so without causing unnecessary harm. Being fast is important but being accurate and sensitive to the fact people might be hurt is part of the consideration.”

Mitchell said graphic and alarming statements are more likely to go viral, regardless of accuracy, “It’s always been this way but technology ratchets things up another couple of notches.”

Johnson said it is the civic duty of witnesses to be at emergency and investigation scenes.

“The best thing to do if you’re a witness is, based upon your memory and before law enforcement gets there, get somewhere by yourself but close by and begin to jot down what you saw,” he said. “When law enforcement comes around, let them know you saw something and don’t let that memory be gained by what other people saw or by social media. We’ll find you and if we don’t, contact us.”

jb.clark@journalinc.com