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Editor's Note: Everyone with a Social Media Account Can be a Reporter

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

An old friend of mine died recently. His last days were chronicled in real time on Facebook.

First came a post that he was seriously ill and was in a nursing home awaiting test results. Then a post that he had been taken back to the hospital. Then that he and doctors had decided there was nothing else they could do. Then the hospice, and finally, his death.

Throughout those 13 days, his many friends communicated with him from wherever they lived across the country. Many were typical vagabond news types like me who had worked with him in one incarnation or another and had moved on to other pastures. Others were lifelong friends. Some probably were mere acquaintances. The hundreds of Facebook messages ranged from maudlin to distraught to humorous (my friend was a very funny guy) to religious. They retold his stories and remembered happy times and wished him a peaceful trip on his final journey. Every several days, the picture on his Facebook page changed, each time showing him in a situation from the past, provoking more memories and comments.

I’m certain my friend had help with his last posts, but we were assured that he was reading ours. In many ways, the whole experience was like a virtual wake, except the honoree was hearing the accolades and the eulogies. I’ll admit that at first, it was a little uncomfortable, but in time, the communications became as natural as the end-of-life process that my friend was going through.

Social media began not all that long ago as a way for students to communicate with a number of friends at once. Most of those posts were trivial — many still are. But over the past few years, the various sites — Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+ and more — have morphed into powerful forces. Twitter and Facebook were generally credited as the virtual town squares for the Arab Spring uprisings, and they often were the only sources of news to the outside world during the cyclone disaster in Myanmar and the devastating earthquake in China.

As someone who has spent the better part of four decades in communications, it is a sea change. For most of my life, it was only a select group of news media that reported on the issues — there were few other ways to obtain that information. Now, everyone with a social media account can be a reporter, with all of the good and bad implications that go along with it.

As news media, social networks are obviously best-employed for breaking stories. In many ways, the Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are no different from the headlines that scroll across the bottom of the television screen on news channels, or even the constant stream of updates on the old news tickers on the sides of buildings. Communication occurs in those short reports, but not with a lot of depth — and frequently not much balance. But what is different is social media’s ability to get those snippets of news as they are happening to vast numbers of people instantly, no matter where they are. And the news isn’t always handed down from on high by the traditional media; it often comes from “friends” on Facebook or those who use Twitter or other social networking sites.

Illinois Issues has an active Facebook page and several Twitter accounts. I have one, but I don’t tweet much — I must admit I still feel a little silly even writing that sentence. Normally, I only use my Twitter feed when a new magazine issue goes online or when we are first to report a news item. I did once craft a tweet that read, “I’m not criticizing, but I like to believe that almost anything important and illuminating I have to say would require more than 140 charact” but I thought better of posting it for fear of revealing what a long-form journalism snob I was and offending those who were more enamored with social networking.

It’s not that I don’t want to be social; it’s just that I don’t necessarily want my friends — or anyone, for that matter — to know exactly what I’m doing every minute of the day. I don’t have anything to hide; I just value what little privacy remains in our world.

At Illinois Issues, Jamey Dunn, our Capitol bureau chief, is the focal point of most of our social networking. She maintains our Twitter and Facebook accounts and reposts most of the items from our daily blog, along with posting other breaking news. Those who want to keep up with what she is doing on a daily basis should follow her on Twitter.

As for me, I am beginning to warm up to social media. It’s terrific to see recent pics of my newest grandson on Facebook. I have reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. And I got to say goodbye to a dying buddy from far away before it was too late.


 In many ways, the Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are no different from the headlines that scroll across the bottom of the television screen on news channels, or even the constant stream of updates on the old news tickers on the sides of buildings.

Illinois Issues, October 2011

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