Living Life, Discovering Death on Facebook

Posted on April 21, 2012


The military is just discovering what the rest of us already knew: You can’t hide anything on Facebook.

An investigation is reportedly underway to figure out how and why Ariell Taylor-Brown learned through Facebook contact with another soldier that her husband, Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown, had just been killed in Afghanistan.

The military is irked it didn’t get to follow protocol, as notification officers did not arrive at the Brown home until hours later. Taylor-Brown is upset officials didn’t get to her sooner.

Both, however, have just entered the brave new world of social media.

Most people are gossips at heart–we want to be the one to give and get information first. Journalists had long cornered the market on being able to gossip about important news to the public. We would get the news and disseminate it, and people would wait for us to do it through the pages we printed.

Well no one is waiting anymore–to gain knowledge or to give it.

Twitter was the launch point for such news as the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Whitney Huston, the suspension of Rick Santorum’s campaign and the landing of a plane on the Hudson River. But that was broadcasted as news. It’s now where the informed or the curious go for news. If it’s going to break, we expect it to break there.

Facebook, though, has been much more personal. It’s where we find out couples have broken up or gotten together, where we learn about pregnancies and job promotions.

And, sometimes, it’s where we find out a friend has died.

Jeff Rieck

Just days after Taylor-Brown learned of her husband’s death, my husband saw a photo come across his timeline by someone he did not know, but tagged was mutual Facebook connection Jeff Rieck, who Brian had met in 1999 as a coworker and we had maintained as a longtime friend. The caption posted at 4:51 p.m. on April 5 read: “My circle of friends is broken. I can not adequately express the sadness at the passing of our fallen friend Jeff. He was a tremendous friend, wonderful father, and exemplary soldier. Rest in peace my friend.”

That was how we learned Jeff was one of the three National Guardsmen killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

We were not alone in our discovery. From the time of the first post at 12:07 a.m. April 5 by Jeff’s cousin Tim Dohrer to the April 7 posting about Jeff being returned to American soil to the April 12 note from his former wife about the funeral arrangements, to the most recent photo on April 18 of a civilian saluting the funeral procession on the way to Jeff’s final resting place, friends near and far were kept in touch in a time of great and mutual loss through social media.

Friends were not the only ones using Facebook to connect. Channel 10 used updates on Jeff’s page to help confirm his death and prepare its story before the official military announcement.  Randy Ludlow of the Columbus Dispatch used Facebook to better get to know Jeff and seek out sources for his story.

Their tactics no doubt feel invasive to some, but they are, in truth, tools reporters now have to better do the job with which they have long been charged: find a story, report the news, educate the public.

And it’s how the rest of us have come to find out things far more quickly than we could have in a conventional news cycle, which kept things from us until the next broadcast, the next paper could be printed, or official word could come.

By 10 p.m. on April 5, only two of the Ohio National Guard soldiers who had been killed were identified by name. Neither the newspapers, nor the first nightly news on Fox 28, had yet identified Jeff. But 61 of his friends had already made posts or comments to his page, leaving no doubt among his friends who was the third fallen hero.

We have chosen to expose ourselves online, providing information to more people in ways we could never before dreamed. We have no secrets. We have instant access.

We will never again have to wait for protocol or news cycles to be informed.

How has it changed how you get your news?

Posted in: General, Journalism