We need a conversation about the ethics of digital doorstepping

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I first wrote about digital doorstepping a decade ago. And the problem has only got worse:

I have dealt with 50+ journos online today. Two found my mobile number. This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive. pic.twitter.com/NYbLzBsVH0

— Dan Hett (@danhett) May 23, 2017

Now, the death knock is a long-standing part of journalism. But we’re a very long way from the days of a single local reporter — and maybe a stringer from a national — turning up at someone’s house. Now, the relatives or friends of someone caught in a news event can rapidly be bombarded with requests from journalism.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s overwhelming:

hundreds of these. ghouls. pic.twitter.com/Ot1ddpzA20

— Dan Hett (@danhett) May 23, 2017

This is a man worried about his missing brother – and he’s besieged by journalists, at one of the most emotionally difficult times in his life. And not only that — what are they asking for? To be friends on Facebook. And what does that give them? The ability to rifle through his past posts — and, more than likely, use anything they find there as material for their story.

Just because digital makes something easier doesn’t make it right. And I’m struggling to see a public interest justification for this sort of behaviour from so many people. Now, maybe someone can explain it to me — but, if not, I think we need a new look at the ethics of the digital doorstepping and the potential intrusion into people’s lives it bring, through no fault of their own.

News orgs need to consider their role in creating PTSD. There is evidence on this. Part of the trauma is caused in the aftermath by response

— Em (@DrEm_79) May 23, 2017

Update — 24/5/17: Sadly, the missing brother is now confirmed to be dead. Rest in peace, Martyn.

Update — 25/5/17: – I’ve followed up this post with a discussion about the problems with the traditional death knock in the digital age.

digital doorsteppingethicsJournalismjournalism ethicsreporting

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.