Twitter and the Hunt for Two Cop-Killers

Social media site Twitter has revolutionized the way people communicate online. From the outbreak of the Arab Spring to breaking news of Beyonce’s pregnancy, Twitter has captivated and connected millions of people with only 140 characters. However, how the media uses Twitter to inform citizens of highly visible criminal cases may be changing in light of a recent Los Angeles manhunt for a cop-killer.

In 2009, ex-convict Maurice Clemmons gunned down four police officers in a coffee shop in the Seattle-Tacoma area. The two-day hunt for his capture dominated coverage in The Seattle Times. Notably, Twitter was used to connect and inform a fearful and vigilant community. Everyone from average civilians to journalists to media outlets mobilized under the hashtag #washooting to share their updates, express sympathies for the victims, and keep the public informed of law enforcement’s progress. The Seattle Times was praised for its coverage, even winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Coverage. Portions of their Twitter stream were included in its entry to the Pulitzer Board.

In spite of Twitter’s successful role in uniting a community in the search for Clemmons, police officials asked the media to stop tweeting about the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, an ex-cop suspected of being involved in the deaths of four people, two of which were police officers. Law enforcement worried Dorner might have access to the Internet and news and hoped to prevent any release of information about police strategy from enabling him. Since news outlets granted the request and Dorner has been killed, speculation of police misbehaving has persisted. While keeping police strategy secret is a legitimate concern, problems arise when the news is censored. Rumors lingered over whether police deliberately set the cabin which hid Dorner on fire in an act of vengeance, rather than for the purpose of driving him out. Also, instead of a unifying Twitter hashtag, information was more spread out under varying hashtags such as #manhunt, #dorner and #bigbear.

Silencing Twitter may provide a valuable strategy for law enforcement but it created a cloud of doubt and mistrust over police actions. The media’s first loyalty is to the public. When asked to self-censor, how can journalists keep a watchful eye over authority or does censorship protect the public for the greater good? Why was the use of Twitter successful in the 2009 manhunt but was discouraged in 2013? Should there be standard procedure for Twitter and live reporting regarding public criminal cases like manhunts or does each case differ on its own?

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