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On social media, bad news spreads quickly

When off-duty Baltimore Police Detective Brian Stevenson was killed Saturday night after being struck in the head by a piece of concrete, word spread quickly through police circles and spilled onto Facebook, where the officer's young daughter learned of his death before relatives could break it to her in person.

On Wednesday, Officer Tommy Portz was killed instantly when his vehicle struck a fire engine on U.S. 40. For more than two hours, officials said Portz was in "extremely serious condition" as they worked to locate his family — even as memorials popped up online from those who already knew the accident was fatal.

As social media reach almost every corner of our lives, they're also affecting the way we learn about death. Memorials on social networking sites spring up almost instantaneously, upending the traditional flow of information in situations where privacy and respect for family members have long been valued — in the killings of soldiers, and for victims of airplane crashes and natural disasters, for example.

Police departments are grappling with this shift when dealing with the deaths of officers and homicide victims. They want to be the first to inform relatives, visiting their home or contacting another department if they are too far away to reach. It's one of the most sensitive tasks they must perform, and police sometimes withhold the name of a murder victim from the public for weeks if a relative can't be reached.

"The least this police department and others can do is be professional and make the notification in person," said Robert F. Cherry, a longtime homicide detective and president of the city police union.

But they have little ability to control the information once it bursts onto social networking sites. Some wonder if new monitoring tools or policies should be adopted, while others say the rapid spread is a natural extension of what already occurs and that police will never be able to fully control such highly charged situations.

"Clearly, it's the new reality of the age of social media and instantaneous communications," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

"People give a lot of thought to the social dynamics of these sorts of exchanges, but when anybody can publish anything at any moment, the capacity to control how information is passed along is lost. It's almost second nature for people who learn something, in the case of tragic news, to begin to memorialize the person who has died."

From media coverage to happenstance — like the wife of a police officer who by coincidence drove by the crash scene where her husband was killed — the ability to control the delivery of bad news has never been absolute.

But Rainie said that with the Internet making everyone a publisher, information is far more likely to reach a wide audience before it has a chance to filter through family or social hierarchies. The posts are typically well-meaning but can have unintended consequences.

Friends have posted about an engagement before the couple's parents have been told, or spread word of pregnancies or other life-changing news. Other times, the "newsmakers" see such sites as the preferred option for instantaneously disseminating information to a wide audience of friends and associates.

Ed Bennett, a social media specialist for the University of Maryland Medical System, said he recently learned of a good friend's death from cancer via Facebook. The man's wife chose that venue to post updates on his conditions and ultimately, news of his death.

"It wouldn't have been any different from anybody calling me on the phone," he said. "It seemed like a natural way that people would share information and keep people informed."

When those primarily affected are among the last to know, however, finding out electronically among a stream of otherwise trivial status updates has the potential to be devastating. The person reading the information might be alone, or even driving, and not have anyone to help them work through their emotions.

Tanya Sharpe, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who works with families of city homicide victims, said news of death brings shock, disbelief, anger, and the desire to retaliate.

"All of those things are pretty normal grief responses, but it's important that the person informing the [loved one] will be trained and ready to respond accordingly," she said. She added that, as great a venue as social networking websites are for good news, "there's no safety net when you're talking about sensitive topics such as death or suicide."

Two weeks ago, the longtime girlfriend of 22-year-old Kirk "Manny" Carter had not received a text from him as she usually did each morning. She tried to call him at noon and did not get an answer.

When she logged onto Facebook, she saw grim messages, according to her father.

"The posts on his Facebook page had started to be posted about how messed up this was, and 'how we were just running the streets last week,'" said the woman's father, who asked not to be identified. "You've got 247 questions running through your mind — what are people writing 'Rest in Peace' for?"

He picked his daughter up from work and rushed to Carter's Westport home to find it blocked off by crime scene tape and detectives. Carter had been shot and stabbed; police later arrested 34-year-old Trebor Woodard, a boyfriend of one of Carter's sisters.

Cherry, who made many notifications during his career as a homicide detective, said that social media haven't completely changed the landscape. When investigating crime scenes, he said, onlookers would often run around the corner to track down family members to inform them about what had happened, and they would hurry to the scene to get confirmation from police.

"In many ways, Facebook is doing what already occurs, which is that news travels fast," he said. "It's unfortunate, because it's not the ideal way to handle it."

Cherry recalled a death of a Johns Hopkins University student several years ago. The student's roommates, friends and the university president all knew of the death, but kept it under wraps until Cherry could travel to the man's parent's home in Montgomery County.

"In 2010, I guarantee you that would be on Facebook," Cherry said.

Sharpe said she thinks such sites might consider policy changes in terms of what can be posted, or increase monitoring. "We're heading toward that place where policy changes will have to be put in place," she said.

Police departments are trying to figure out how to handle such situations. Many claim not to have encountered such problems and have no firm rules or policies. But others have drafted social media-specific guidelines.

Senior Cpl. Kevin Janse, a Dallas police spokesman, said traditional media remain the most likely to create problems of rushed information. But he said a social media policy is under review at City Hall "because we realize that's the way things are going."

In Atlanta, the police chief in February approved new guidelines on social media usage.

"It requires a delicate balance of weighing the First Amendment right to free speech, against the important responsibility we have to uphold the public trust," said spokesman Carlos Campos. "At the end of the day, though, a certain measure of good judgment and common sense is required by all professionals — public and private — who use social media, not just law enforcement officers."

As union president, Cherry was notified of the attack on Stevenson quickly, and he travelled to the crime scene. He hadn't yet heard from the police commissioner when he logged onto Facebook and started seeing messages that read, "R.I.P. Brian 'Bee' Stevenson."

"I thought, 'Oh my God,'" Cherry recalls. "I started thinking, 'I hope no one sees this.'"

The Fraternal Order of Police, which under Cherry's direction has been using Twitter for the past year to send out updates, didn't send a message about Stevenson's death until the next day.

But it happened again on Monday. Word spread instantly through unofficial channels that Portz was dead. With police and fire officials giving updates saying he was injured, reporters withheld that information.

"We were careful knowing that in a previous case the family found out on Facebook," said Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, referring to Stevenson. Guglielmi said officials worked quickly to locate Portz's family, though he noted: "You can't be faster than Facebook."

justin.fenton@baltusn.com

Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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