When a Virginia Tech student disappeared at a Metallica concert in Charlottesville last fall, her friends and family turned to social media to find her. A few months later, when a Utah woman went missing, supporters launched what some claimed was the most extensive use of online technology in a missing-person search, enlisting close to 40,000 Facebook and Twitter members in three days. Thus far, neither campaign has led to the two missing women.
Nevertheless, says Claudette Artwick, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University, another way to assess the success or failure of these efforts is by looking at the media coverage they generate.
"In the case of the Utah woman, Susan Powell, for instance, there have been nearly 1,500 stories about her since she disappeared," says Artwick, who specializes in new media and is the author of Reporting and Producing for Digital Media. "In the days leading up to the social-media blitz, 300 stories covered the case, most about the blitz itself. What that means is that you're getting interest from the media concurrent with interest from people all over the country, even the world, through the social media."
Artwick notes that in the pre-social-media days, the goal was to get a missing person's photo on television and in the newspaper. Social media now allow friends and family to put that photo in front of millions and millions of eyes with or without the help of traditional media, says Artwick, who is concerned that this valuable new tool may not be equally available.
"Getting that photo on TV may not be all that easy today unless the story or the person who is missing meets certain criteria," says Artwick.
Both Susan Powell and Morgan Harrington, the Virginia Tech student, meet that profile, says Artwick. They're both young, attractive, Causasian women who disappeared under intriguing circumstances. In contrast, she points to the case of Cassandra Morton, a 23-year-old African-American woman from Lynchburg, VA, who disappeared on Oct. 10, about a week before Harrington. Morton's body was found in Campbell County, VA, in late November.
Morton received very little news coverage, and not until a month after she disappeared, says Artwick.
"We didn't see a social media blitz to draw attention to her disappearance," Artwick says. "What concerns me is that people who don't have the resources or technical ability to use Facebook, Twitter, or blogs, may be at a disadvantage — that we may see a widening of the digital divide."
Artwick says that social-media tools are not without their pitfalls in these cases. Primarily, speculation can run rampant and hinder investigations.
"I think we have to be very aware that this could be a place for simmering of rumors, and there may not necessarily be the checks-and-balances system that we would have in our traditional media sources," she says. "People may use Twitter, for instance, in a way that gets rumors percolating or spreads false allegations that are not helpful."
In the Harrington case, for instance, police officials recently addressed unfounded rumors in a news conference. "I don't know that the postings in social media drove the news conference," says Artwick, "but I think it's noteworthy that police did address them publicly."
On the other hand, the Powell campaign dealt with the issues of rumor and speculation head-on. "The Friends and Family of Susan Powell Facebook page states that 'All comments deemed speculative, accusatory, negative or hurtful will be deleted and the poster may be banned.' The Powell blitz has been an example of a very savvy use of these tools and, maybe, a model for what we'll see in the future."
Artwick says that the rapid rise of social media as an integral part of traditional media work became clearer than ever this week when the Associated Press, one of the largest media organizations in the world, named its first manager of social networks and news engagement.
"Appropriately enough, I learned of that new appointment on Facebook," Artwick adds.
Listen to an audio file of Claudette Artwick discussing the reach of social media.