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April 21 2011

14:28

Notifying Next of Kin in the Age of Facebook

When she picked up the phone, I could tell from the sound of her voice that she didn't know yet.

"I'm sorry to tell you this -- but I wanted you to hear from a friend, not Facebook. Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. Chris Hondros too. I'm really sorry."

There's a nauseating absurdity to those words, but it's the conversation I had yesterday morning with a friend.

I'd been getting "pings" for an hour, mostly by Facebook IM, asking if I knew anything about the tweets coming out of Libya. I wasn't taking them especially seriously at first, having spent most of the last decade in the swashbuckling photojournalist's world of close calls, near-misses, slight embellishments, and wild exaggerations. In this very foggy realm of war and disaster, epic tales abound -- of firefights, explosions, abductions and the like -- but today's hype turned out to be real.

Contacting Next of Kin

As I began reading the SMS messages on my mobile, the phone rang. A friend in a newsroom, choking out words through tears that Tim was dead. Chris badly wounded. Another friend unaccounted for. Attempts were being made to reach Tim's girlfriend. Chris had just gotten engaged, and it was unknown if his fiancée had been contacted yet. No idea about their families.

By the time I got off the phone with her, and turned back to my laptop, conversation threads were spilling across Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Prayers, questions, doubts, and speculation were spreading at digital speed.

I've been an embedded photographer, inserted with soldiers or Marines in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I've often signed a contract known as the Embedded Media Ground Rules -- one of the most basic terms of the contract is that news of casualties is withheld, until such time as the next of kin have received official notice. When troops are killed, that process of notification means real, live, human messengers are dispatched to the doorsteps of mothers and wives - sometimes in a complex maneuver where multiple family members, spread out across different and distant locations must receive a coordinated, simultaneous knock on their doors.

In the forward "area of operation" controlled by the military, a communication blackout is usually imposed, with Internet and phone service, if they even exist, shut down until the next of kin have been contacted. It's one of the conditions that few journalists object to - most of us agree that no mother should have to learn of her son's death in the pages of a newspaper.

In the Facebook and Twitter age, the time delay of the print news cycle seems positively quaint. I thought about that as I watched real-time updates stream across my monitor and mobile screens -- and I wondered if Tim and Chris had family and close friends who hadn't even woken up yet in whatever time zone they were in.

News Spreads on the Social Network

For Tim and Chris, there weren't any media ground rules, and in rebel controlled territory in Libya, there was no Internet blackout. News of their deaths was transmitted across a personal social network that happened to be composed of professional communicators.

By mid-day, I'd learned that two other photographers had been wounded in the same incident. One of them was my friend Mike Brown, the other was a British photographer named Guy Martin who I've never met. The good news, at least, was that Mike had taken shrapnel to the shoulder, but was non-critical. The missing photographer, my friend Moises Saman, had made contact, and was safe, already in another country.

Conflicting reports kept coming about Chris - some said he's dead, others indicated that he suffered catastrophic head injuries but was clinging to life. There have been some angry comments about another photographer who first broke the news via Twitter or Facebook, and others of gratitude to him for assistance during the aftermath of the attack, as the wounded photographers received medical treatment.

Personally, I doubt that Tim and Chris probably would begrudge anyone for tweeting their deaths. In an information age, they lived and died by the sword, but it still feels kind of twisted.

If they could, my guess is that they'd both be advocating for a few whiskeys on their behalf. And that's where I'm headed.

Below is a photo I took of Tim Hetherington (left) and Basetrack's Balazs Gardi (right) in Brooklyn the night before Tim left for Libya.

tim hetherington and balazs gardi.jpg

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