The session we do in the uni journalism class called ‘internet research’ is a lot more fun and illuminating than its rather pedestrian title suggests.
The students rummage around on the web and find out all sorts of stuff about their classmates. Some of it they’re not keen on their pals knowing about, let alone mum, dad, gran or the lady next door. And much of this is ‘hidden away’ on social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.
The students are horrified to realise that something they thought was just for messing about with among friends is actually out there for everyone to see.
In every newsroom I visit I encourage reporters to open accounts with the social networkers so they can easily access these sites when they need to find some info on someone.
Unfortunately it tends to lend itself to tragedy, like the gap year students in the Ecuador bus disaster or the car-load of teenagers killed in a Gloucestershire car crash.
And so it was to Bebo that we turned when news came in that a 14-year-old girl had collapsed and died after an asthma attack on the street in Ferrybank, just five minutes from the Waterford News & Star offices.
We found pictures with family and friends, an instant condolence book and links to other personal sites with more background information.
This isn’t to say that ‘internet research’ replaces old-fashioned reporting. We still knocked on doors, called up the headmaster and the undertaker and took a ‘copy picture’ of the unfortunate girl that was clutched by a friend at school.
True to form there are those readers who felt our coverage was a form of intrusion. “The girl’s not even buried yet,” said one, but our coverage was balanced, fair, accurate and a testimony to local journalists who worked their patch and contacts well.
Long live leg-work and the internet.