when everyone involved in a crime is a blogger
When Demi Moore posted photos of herself at the dentist with one of her front teeth missing, she made the paparazzis superfluous. When Salam Pax blogged from Bagdad and US soldiers blogged their experiences of fighting in Iraq we were excited to hear directly from people involved in the war. Having direct access to the actors in an event rather than reading the media’s filtered and often somewhat simplified version (disintermediation) can be immensely empowering to the people involved – and to us readers.
But what if the people blogging their versions of the story were involved in a crime?
Today’s papers here in Norway tell a tragic story of a pregnant 18-year-old who lost her baby after being beaten up by the child’s father and his friend, a 17-year-old girl. The 17-year-old had blogged about the attack, and several newspapers note this, quoting just enough of what she wrote to make her seem even more of hardened criminal – just the lines describing what she remembers of the attack. Here’s a translation of the quotes in Bergens Tidende’s rendition: “X (the 18-year-old) wanted the child put out of the world, to kill it in the womb and to make Y (the pregnant woman) have a miscarriage. (..) I walked up behind X, pulled her hood back and hit her head. Then I blacked out.”
A few hours after I read the story, a journalist called from VG. Did I think – as a researcher of blogs, and in relation to this case – that people are too naive about what they blog in public? Journalists have asked me that question quite a few times before. I started off saying that it did seem pretty stupid to blog about something like that – but then the journalist mentioned that actually the blog post was an very upset apology to the victim. That was not at all the impression I had got from reading a couple of quotes, torn out of context, in the media.
The journalist emailed me the text of the attacker’s blog post, which is long, anguished and gives a far more nuanced impression of the 17-year-old. Certainly I wouldn’t agree with some of her basic ethical principles, but she doesn’t come across as a hardened criminal as in the newspaper.
A bit more googling and I discovered that almost everyone involved in this tragic case is (or was) a blogger: the 17-year-old girl, the pregnant girl, one of the pregnant girl’s girlfriends (who gives a fairly full description of events from the pregnant girl’s point of view) and even the ex-girlfriend of the unborn child’s father. The ex-girlfriend has a daughter by the male attacked – a little girl whom he apparently worships.
I’m not going to link to these blogs, because the women are clearly ambivalent about the story being this public. But I think there are some really interesting principles to discuss here.
First of all, it’s a wonderful example of the people directly involved in a “news story” actually being able to – and to some extent wanting to – tell their version of the story. The 17-year-old wrote (translated and paraphrased to protect her identity):
I think almost all rumours about me have been started by people who dislike me. Rumours are like fire in dry grass and getting people to believe the truth is like finding a needle in a haystack.
This is a woman who wants to tell her version of the story. She’s also fully aware that by blogging her version of the story, she’s also outing herself publicly as the person who committed this crime. She writes that she hopes the victim reads her blog post (the victim did, and in her own blog writes that she commented to correct a factual error in the story).
I want you to know that if you’re going to give me a lecture of whatever, use your own name. I’m not hiding, you shouldn’t either.
The victim of the attack likewise writes about the value of truth:
I never intended this to come out in this way, but since she [the attacker] wrote about, I let [girlfriend’s name] write about it too. I didn’t comment on the attackers blog to provoke her but to correct some errors. When a story is published like that it should be true. I wasn’t anonymous because she asked me not to be.
The girlfriend’s blog gives a full account of the event as experienced by the victim, whereas the victim herself and the ex-girlfriend are much less direct in their initial- they refer to the event but in a way where you wouldn’t know what they were talking about if you didn’t already know. But reading more highlights the lack of nuance in the media’s rendition.
The standard take on young people being “too” open on blogs is that they’re foolish. But I wonder if there isn’t something almost opposite going on. If you’ve basically grown up blogging, won’t you assume that the right to speak directly, in your own words, is yours? Why mutely allow the media to describe you? The media wants to sell newspapers and needs narratively interesting stories that can be told quickly, matching our stereotypes. A conflict, two opposing sides, good vs evil. That doesn’t really match reality with all its nuances.
And that brings us to press ethics, the second issue. Now that the 17-year-old has deleted her blog, all that remains of her words is the quotes republished by the media. Those words, taken out of context, are basically all that we see of her. They paint a far worse picture of her than her long and emotional blog post. Perhaps she shouldn’t have deleted her post. Perhaps the media shouldn’t have quoted her blog. Perhaps their quoting it actually violates the VÊr Varsom poster, the set of rules that Norwegian journalists are supposed to follow, which among other things states: “Show particular care when dealing with people who are expected to not understand the effect of what they say. Don’t abuse peoples’ feelings, ignorance or lack of judgement. Remember that people in shock and grief are more vulnerable than others.” A 17-year-old who blogged a confession and apology immediately after killing an unborn child could reasonably be said to fall into that category.
A third issue is what effect blogging attackers and victims have on the court case. Already we deal with people being, in effect, judged by the media before they even get to the courtroom. What happens when people argue their own cases in their blogs and in the comments, long before the police have even investigated?
This is a tragic case for all involved. Does blogging make it even more tragic, or give those involved at least a little agency in what is now a matter for the media, police and courts?