Reporting on a Tragedy in the Age of New Media

Editor of JOE.ie, Paddy McKenna, on how the online organisation reports on a story like the Brussels bombings

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Most people know JOE.ie from its sports coverage and viral articles such as ‘If Irish political parties were Game of Thrones Houses’.

But in the wake of Brussels bombings it was also a font of information, updating readers with details as the event occurred; from where the bombings were taking place to the names of the suspects behind the attacks.

JOE.ie didn’t always cover breaking international news. But when Paddy McKenna took on the job as editor, that changed.

“When I came in first of all, within two weeks Charlie Hebdo happened,” he says. “I was interested to see how the audience would react to it… (they were) really interested and really engaged.”

“It’s likely that age group (of 18-34 year olds) will get their news from us, so we have to treat that with respect.”

McKenna was a well-known radio-journalist, co-hosting ‘Weekenders’ on 2FM. He started off splitting his time between 2FM and JOE.ie, but left RTÉ in order to spend more time with his new-born son Michael.

McKenna says he does miss working in broadcast journalism, but felt he needed a change.

“If you just stand still and do the same thing forever, you might just find you get left behind.”

The aim of JOE.ie, he says, is “being at the cutting edge of how we disseminate news.”

The offices of JOE.ie seem to reflect this aim, having a similar vibe to your average Silicon start-up. There are beanbag chairs placed all around the converted warehouse, and ‘Back to the Future’ posters adorn the office. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for your best mate’s house, which is exactly what JOE.ie is trying to achieve.

“For me JOE is kind of like your best friend that you can talk to about some of the tough stuff, the hard-hitting stuff, and in the next breath you could be having a bit of a slagging match or having the craic,” McKenna says.

McKenna was not born into the social media age, and has had to adapt to the change that online journalism created.

I graduated (from Journalism) in 2005 and it was a totally different reality then. I mean, to think that Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook had only just been established and really truly, in ’05 we didn’t really know much about it. I remember somebody in my class got an iPod and we were like ‘an iPod? What’s that?’

Although the Brussels bombings was not the first big story JOE.ie has covered, it is a good example of the challenges that come with reporting online.

McKenna tells me that they were considering whether to post the feed from someone’s Periscope account of the Brussels attacks, one of the biggest changes caused by new media.

“It used to be that if you had a Brussels correspondent you were ahead of everybody…  Now everybody has correspondents in Brussels because everybody has access to the people. If you have a smartphone, you’re a journalist.”

But it also causes problems. “What I suppose we don’t have there is the power to censor him if he was to show something that was too graphic. We can’t just switch him off.”

McKenna says one of the issues with the ability to publish instantly is when to post something, and when not to.

We’re all trying to figure it out as we go and I suppose we’re trying to be as ethical as we can… To see ITV posting pictures on the metro carriage, you can see bodies, it’s like ‘Jesus’. We’re not that desensitised to what we’re seeing. We need the media to filter this. These people have families. They deserve respect.

Another big issue is verification. JOE.ie was required to authenticate a video that was allegedly CCTV footage from inside the Brussels airport showing the bombings. In fact it was from a similar attack in 2013.

“A lot of the time, we’re verifying,” McKenna explains. “We don’t have troops on the ground but we still have savvy news reporters who know how to use social media to verify information.”

However, it’s not all challenges. JOE.ie has been experimenting with new ways to tell stories. Its articles on the Brussels bombings included reactions and videos from Twitter, pictures from Instagram, and an article about the trending hashtag #Openhouse, where Irish people on Twitter were offering people shelter in Brussels.

McKenna says, “I think we’re probably quicker to publish that story than the Irish Times, who maybe are talking about President Hollande’s comments, where we’re looking at what’s happening socially and what’s different… It’s about finding ways to tell stories in as innovative a manner as we can.”

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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