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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Post’s insight into terror suspect drawn from online posts

I’ve been following the story of the failed terrorist plot to blow up a Delta Airlines flight just before landing in Detroit pretty closely because I’m fascinated with what would turn a privileged banker’s son into a radical. Unfortunately most of the media aren’t giving me many answers. Today, however, NPR and the Washington Post finally started providing some depth and insight into who Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is by going to the first place I would have gone: the Internet. In fact, the Post’s story by Philip Rucker and Julie Tate should serve as a wake-up call to journalists about the power of the Internet in determining the truth and providing context to a confusing question.

Judging by the number of hits and comments the Post story has received, I don’t think I’m alone in appreciating their effort to dive into technology. What Rucker and Tate did was comb through more than 300 posts made by someone named Farouk1986 in which he shares intimate details of his life and his struggle with religious devotion. I appreciate their effort to verify that Farouk1986 is really Abdulmutallab and they make a compelling case for the connection. However, I’m a little disappointed at Neal Conan, host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, because his first statement was …

The first thing we have to ask is whether you are sure Farouk1986 is Abdulmutallab

Maybe I’m reading or hearing too much, but it seems to me the skepticism journalists have the Internet come through. It seemed like Conan would have much preferred the boilerplate story where journalists pester people like his former teachers, which All Things Considered, did. Instead, I wish he would have applauded Rucker for providing readers with Abdulmutallab’s own words.

I’m certain this isn’t the first time journalists have combed cyberspace for criminal suspect’s writings, and I certainly hope it’s not the last. However, I think this is a much better use of a person’s online postings than the typical insane rants journalists pull from blogs. The post Rucker shared about Abdulmutallab’s hesitation to even eat with his family because they did not follow Islamic dietary laws the same way as he did.

Conan even had the guts to ask Rucker if he was going to follow up on these posts. I really liked Rucker’s answer:

Of course we really don’t know that he stopped writing. We were only able to find these posts up until 2007 … Of course, the postings people really want to read are the ones he wrote in the last few months before the terrorist attack.

I agree, but I also don’t want to diminish the value of the post Rucker and Tate found. What made them telling was they were honest questions Farouk1986 asked of the online community. To me, this demonstrates the Internet can reveal a lot about a person’s true self, but we have to go beyond the obvious. This blog, for example, chronicles my research and musings on journalism, but you’d be missing the point if you didn’t learn a little bit about who I am in the process.

I highlight this story, not just because it’s the most read and e-mailed on the Post Web site today. I really hope the success of this story makes journalists more aware of what’s going on online. I hope it helps them see that real conversations occur online, not just ones between people pretending to be someone else. Journalists need to focus on true, verifiable information, but this doesn’t not preclude posts from Facebook and discussion boards. Journalists also should not just turn to the Web when the suspect is high profile. In fact, I’m going to talk to my students about turning to the Web for almost all of their sources. A Web search won’t replace a good, face-to-face interview, but it can provide context and background when information isn’t readily available.

SideNote: I hope the Post linked worked for you. If it didn’t it because the paper still has the ancient policy of requiring you to register on the site first. I’d give the Post credit for giving you the option to connect through Facebook.

Photo Credit: telegraph.co.uk

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