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Tweeting on death and dying

Late last month, NPR radio host Scott Simon touched the hearts of the tweeting masses when he live-tweeted his mother’s dying days on Twitter. Through articles, tweets and comments, people rehashed the thoughts he shared and what this public display meant to them.

It’s evident that social media has become much more than a tool; it’s become a way to share life and death, moments of grief and to memorialize our loved ones. While there were some critics who felt disclosing such intimate moments of his mother’s life crossed a line, most people who followed him related to the love and loss he expressed in 140 characters.

Brian Murphy, cohost of KNBR-AM’s “Murph and Mac” show in San Francisco, noted he was initially surprised by Simon’s tweets. “In fact, it took a few tweets for me to realize – Whoa, I think he is live-tweeting his mother’s final days. With aging parents myself, I found myself connected almost immediately. When I described it to friends, it sounded cold and impersonal; but reading the tweets throughout the days proved quite the opposite,” he said in an email interview.

Despite the attention Simon received, he isn’t the first journalist to use Twitter for more personal storytelling. Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, left Facebook posts and tweeted about his nephew’s death in Afghanistan late last year, while GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram live-tweeted his friend’s funeral last October to much dismay from readers.  But these are only examples of journalists. Buttry noted it’s not uncommon for the average person to memorialize loved ones on Facebook. “It is definitely a part of social media, the sharing of grief,” he said. “I think what was different about Scott was he lived-tweeted his mother’s final days.”

Each one of Simon’s tweets also stood on its own, Buttry noted, and said something touching, funny or profound about his mother. “I think journalists tend not to tell enough first person stories, and when we let ourselves and our families be the story it kind of stands out that way,” he said.

For anyone who thought Simon exploited his mother’s dying moments, Murphy said all they had to do was unfollow the NPR host. “I think it was obviously therapeutic for him, and I think his mother was aware of it, too, so he wasn’t pulling wool over anyone’s eyes,” he said.

Any comments disparaging Simon, however, were few and far between. On the flip side, when Ingram tweeted his friend’s funeral last year, he was largely criticized. Given that radio tends to be a more casual medium, are radio personalities given more leeway to divulge personal and intimate moments from their lives?

While Murphy believes it’s possible, he also noted he thinks a journalist from the Washington Post or New York Times could tweet in a similar fashion. Meanwhile, Simon himself already had a reputation for sharing personal information with readers, he noted. “This was very much in keeping with who he is on the radio, whereas we don’t know investigative reporters the same way. He’d already written a book about adopting two girls from China, so he already has shown his fans how he feels his personal life is fodder for discussion,” Murphy said.

In a previous inVocus article, we discussed the pitfalls of oversharing on social media, while also noting that some people have found comfort in their followers’ words of support and compassion. The only difference between a journalist and the average person is their tweets and posts may be subject to a wider audience and far more scrutiny. “The very fact that we’re talking about this is that it struck a chord. Anyone who has lost a loved one identifies with the things that he was tweeting about, that he went through,” said Buttry.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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