New Castle News

September 17, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Web turns up heat on minor story

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The Internet has changed dramatically the way we access and spread information.

If you want to do research, the Internet offers seemingly endless options. Just be careful of your sources.

E-commerce has revolutionized the business world. Buying, selling and trading are done in ways that were unthinkable a couple of generations ago.

And when it comes to news, the Internet provides the immediacy (albeit not necessarily the accuracy) consumers crave. Plus, there are countless websites and blogs that latch on to news gleaned from other sites on the Internet and present it as their own material.

Because of the Internet, many stories that would have seen limited, or only regional, exposure in the past sometimes take on widespread interest. But every now and then, other local stories develop legs. They are important enough or, in many instances, quirky enough to gather a broader following.

That’s what happened with the “Tebowing” incident.

Back in August, the Shenango Township Police Department reported it was investigating a case where a motorist allegedly had assaulted a local teen who had been cutting grass.

In the great scheme of things, this was a relatively minor crime, in that the youth was not seriously injured. But what the suspect allegedly did as he returned to his vehicle raised the stakes on cyberspace. Police were told the man did a “Tebow”— he went through a kneeling prayer motion similar to that often seen from New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow.

Having someone assault a teen, then mimic Tebow, produced the unusual news twist that was picked up on hundreds of websites.

The story quickly died down, but then last week, the Shenango department posted information that said officers intended to charge a man with the crime. The department’s Facebook site included his name, his photo and other details. Within a day, if you searched on the man’s name and Tebow, you could come up with thousands of hits, as website after website posted the story.

I’m sure it was viewed as entertainment in many instances. But that came to an end Friday. After receiving word of a suicide at McConnell’s Mill State Park, the New Castle News did a little more digging. And right around deadline that day we learned the victim was the same person accused in the Tebowing incident.

At this point, we don’t know if the wave of web-based publicity was a factor in this man’s suicide. But it’s a plausible argument — if he was aware of it. On the other hand, someone who stops a vehicle to assault a kid cutting grass apparently had other issues he needed to address.

But there are people willing to blame the media, specifically The News. One Facebook poster accused us of sensationalizing this minor matter by spreading it on the front page of the paper. The problem with that argument is that we never did any such thing.

The News ran three stories — the original incident, the arrest and the suicide. None was on the front page.

So were we being sensational? Or were we merely doing what we are supposed to do? Some people obviously may disagree, but I would say our coverage reported what had happened without going overboard.

Maybe there’s a lesson here for all those Web posters and bloggers who cruise cyberspace for these types of stories. And maybe there’s a lesson for the consumers of such sites. And it’s this: There are real people behind these reports.

Will this change anything? I doubt it. On the Internet, the desire for bread and circuses continues to know no bounds.