By The Bakersfield Californian
Our reports Tuesday about the role of Twitter in the lives of Breana Webb and her friends stirred passions.
Webb was killed just before 4 a.m. Monday by a wrong-way driver who came down Coffee Road and hit Webb's car. Webb's three passengers were injured. Not until Friday was it revealed that those injuries ranged from a lacerated kidney to multiple facial fractures.
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The wrong-way driver was Martin Juarez, police say. He has been charged with felonies including second-degree murder and is being held on $1,225,000 bail. He pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.
Juarez has a prior DUI conviction from 2005, which has made the new charges more serious.
Very few details of the crash were revealed Monday, but Webb and Juarez were named by police.
In covering the story, we searched for background on the two. Except for his prior DUI, we found nothing on Juarez. But routine Google searches turned up volumes of social media activity by Webb and her friends.
That's why Jamie Butow, our community engagement coordinator and social media columnist, wrote her Tuesday column about the young crash victims and their friends.
In telling that story, Butow noted that Webb and others had been at a party where, according to their own tweets, they had engaged in drinking games. (The party invitations had been made on Twitter by a user named Daniel Galvez. He wrote: "I got an address if youre trynna drink.")
The column enraged many friends of Webb. They objected to coverage of the tweets and said it implied we were demonizing an accident victim.
They complained bitterly, harassed Butow, published online what they thought was her address (it wasn't) and issued many, many threats against her, often using vile and despicable language.
At first, Butow didn't respond, But after a day or so of continuing abuse, Butow was compelled to report the threats to Bakersfield police and the online conduct to Twitter.
Twitter's code of conduct prohibits threats and the release of personal information about someone (such as their address). Twitter suspended some acounts.
Many writers wondered why we didn't report similar background information on Martin Juarez. (I explained above why that information wasn't immediately available.)
Butow's point, lost to many but praised by dozens, was not to demonize Breana Webb but to point out what should seem obvious: comments left on social media, unless privatized by the user, are as public as public can be.
Most of the subsequent threats also were issued publicly online. That behavior might not be particularly wise. (She even got a threatening email signed "Anonymous" from someone whose full name was spelled out in his email address. Smart.)
Here's a very small sampling, edited for space, of some of the mail that came our way:
READER : Young people possess an attitude of invincibility, they always have and they always will. It's a natural progression of maturity. This article will not change anyone's behavior; that will come with soul searching and remembrance of a life cut short.
I can't imagine losing one of my kids in such a tragic circumstance and then to have them smeared in the local paper less than 24 hours later in an article that accomplished nothing but taint the memory of a young girl whose untimely demise has left many shaken and brokenhearted.
READER: I was born and raised in Bakersfield and it makes me very mad that the Bakersfield Californian put the article about the teen who died in a head on collision. You title it Teen life and death unfolds on twitter. Are you kidding me what kind of sick people are you? You are basically saying that she deserved it but had your reporter actually did her job maybe she should have stuck her nose in the business of the man who had several DUI's and was driving on the wrong side of the road. You punish her in a paper and she is not even here to defend her self but you have nothing to say about a grown man who has multiple DUI's....
Emily E Moody
READER: STOP BLAMING THE YOUNG
... Breanna Webb was not the one who visited this tragedy on her family and friends. The tragedy of this accident is the death of an 18-year-old by a man driving down the wrong side of the road and then trying to leave the scene. His history speaks for itself with previous DUI and other driving infractions.
Of course there's a message for anyone here who drinks and drives. But the message your paper keeps reporting is to blame the victim because she's young and because of what's on her computer.
Put the emphasis of this tragedy where it belongs....
READER: Out of all the disrespectful things I've ever seen, nothing will ever top Jamie Butow's article on Breana Webb.... Turning a tragedy into an opportunity to criticize teenagers and their poor use of social media is so low that she shouldn't even call herself a journalist.
What happened to Breana was an absolute travesty, and it is extremely pathetic and distasteful to portray her as an irresponsible party girl. Butow should have enough compassion and intelligence to understand that whether or not Breana made poor judgment calls online is no place for a newspaper to report, especially just days after she passed...
Breana's passing is not something to have an opinion about, it was tragic and will not be forgotten. It was a great idea for an article, but to exploit Breana before she is even in the ground (or at all) is sickening.
READER: I'm a local business owner and customer of the paper and a concerned citizen. I'm calling today to politely and respectfully ask you to retract the article printed in today's paper about Breana Webb. I think your article was wildly inappropriate. I think you vilified a young girl without paying too much attention to the 33-year-old that murdered her.
He'd already been convicted of a DUI once. Obviously it didn't wear off on him, driving on the wrong side of the road. You seemed to concentrate on her social life and not on others...
ARTHUR: It was not our intent to speak ill of Breana Webb or other people who were partying or injured in the crash. To those who felt we did, I apologize.
I don't apologize for what I thought was a very strong column by Jamie Butow that, even though the timing might have seemed abrupt, turned a harsh but honest spotlight on people who use social media without considering the consequences to themselves or others.
This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about news coverage. Your questions -- which may be edited for space -- are answered each Sunday by Executive Editor John Arthur. Follow John Arthur on Twitter @BakoEditor
ARTHUR: Not everyone was critical of Jamie Butow and her Tuesday column. She got lots of email. Here are excerpts from some. I've removed the names of the senders because, unlike folks who post online, write a Letter to the Editor to Sound Off, these writers didn't necessarily have the expectation that they would be quoted publicly.
READER: Thank you very much Jaime for what you wrote. I sure a lot of kids and parents are thanking you too.
READER: I thank you for your article this week. It is so very important in two ways. You have shown that the social networks that our society loves so much leave a trail for anyone to see if they want to look, and the dangers of alcohol.... Keep up the good work!
READER: You already know this, but excellent article about teens and social media. Very well written and exactly on point. Thank you for maybe pulling some heads out of the sand. (From a high school teacher.)
READER: I have 2 teenage granddaughters. I appreciate that you are telling the truth. Parents and kids today don't seem to want to accept responsibility for their actions. The drinking age is 21, period. Not 18 and not 17....
READER: Thank you for shedding light on the real tragedy of Breana Webb's death. If it wakes up just 1 parent, it'll be worth all the grief you're most likely getting because of your column.
READER: I know your column this morning was hard to write, and it took a lot of courage. Thank you for having the courage to tell the truth. Something must be done to save our children. A few readers have complained that we aren't covering the Libya story. That issue will be addressed in a special Sound Off column Monday. Sound Off