The Facebook Conundrum: The New Haven Independent and the Annie Le Murder

Abstract

CSJ-10-0030.0 This case asks what rules exist on the use of social media in reporting news stories. In September 2009, the New Haven Independent—a recent, online, local news website—finds itself beating the national competition on the shocking story of the murder of Annie Le, a Yale University graduate student. The Independent, thanks to local sources, is ahead on getting the name of the murder suspect, Raymond Clark. It also locates a police report naming him, which leads an Independent reporter to the suspect’s former girlfriend, Jessica Del Rocco. On the social media network Facebook, reporter Melissa Bailey tracks down Del Rocco, who agrees to Bailey’s request to become a Facebook “friend.” As Bailey reads Del Rocco’s online posts about her reaction to the murder story, Bailey debates whether she can use this colorful, personal material. Are such online posts public, semi-private or private? Does it matter how many “friends” an individual has accumulated? Should the Independent disguise Del Rocco’s identity? 

Students can discuss the Independent’s dilemma from two viewpoints: that of the reporter and that of the editor. What rules govern a reporter’s use of good material discovered on a social media website? Are there guidelines about a reporter’s relationship with online sources? For the editor, are there rules of the road on publishing material obtained from social media, and if so, what are they? The case also examines the evolution of the Independent as a non-profit, online news website focused on local news. Students should consider whether the local news mandate imposes special restrictions on Independent reporters when it comes to naming suspects and using information from local sources to report a national story. What are the website’s responsibilities to its readers and its funders?

This case can be used in a course on editorial management; the business of media; or ethics.

Credits:

This case was written by David Mizner for the Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. The faculty sponsor was Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society Richard Wald. Funding was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (0510)

For further information: