Tweeting for Jordan: How social media played into a missing-persons search

I didn’t plan to break a news story on Twitter when UNCA student Jordan Earley went missing, but a journalist’s job resembles improv theater more than a 9-to-5 job.

Sitting at home in Greenville, N.C., I checked my Facebook account, thinking it would yield nothing interesting beyond a few amusing links from friends. Instead, I found pleas for help from two members of UNCA’s Sigma Nu fraternity.

They asked if anyone had any information about their fellow fraternity brother and friend.

They posted phone numbers and concern. As Andy Sherman, Earley’s Sigma Nu big brother, said in a status update, “Make sure you say a prayer tonight for him.”

My fingers felt numb as they rested on my laptop keyboard. I reread the statuses over and over, the words running through my mind.

It didn’t seem possible, but posting a lie on Facebook about someone being missing didn’t seem possible either. I wanted to know more, not only as a journalist, but also as a fellow student. That’s when I got to work.

I commented on one of the Facebook statuses, asking if Earley was missing. When I received no response, I texted. Within six minutes, I got confirmation: “Yes. Asheville Fire and Rescue is currently looking for him.”

At this point, it wasn’t about being a concerned student anymore. It was about journalistic responsibility and the right for the public to know Jordan Earley was missing. It was about sharing as much information as possible about his disappearance with the public and the media in a professional and uncompromising way.

Before I sent that first tweet at 10:13 p.m. on Friday, trepidation pulsated through my body as frequently as self-doubt appeared in my mind. I did not know if it was the right thing to do, but I knew I had my facts right and I trusted my sources. I just had to trust myself as a legitimate journalist even though I’m still in college.

Then it happened.

One retweet became many. Locals retweeted. Local businesses retweeted. Locals asked questions. Fellow journalists, including Ingrid Allstaedt at WLOS, asked questions. The tweets went live on the media site mountainx.com. My phone didn’t stop buzzing, either, and I updated as I found out more information.

Before I knew it, my small bedroom in Greenville became my newsroom. My Twitter account became my publisher.

However, while I waited for information, I became a student again. I imagined myself walking by Jordan Earley on the quad. I wondered if I had ever met him and not known it. I hoped the Asheville Police Department would be successful. I feared they would not.

When I went to bed on that eerie Friday the 13th, sleep seemed more like a stranger than a necessity. A fellow classmate was still missing. I reminded myself I had done all I could as a journalist and a student. All I needed to do was sleep and hope for the best.

The next day, the best happened. I received a text saying Asheville police had found Earley. I called UNCA’s Sigma Nu president, Sean Jennings, for confirmation. At the time, attempts to reach the Asheville Police Department for comment were unsuccessful.

I don’t know whether it was Twitter, Facebook, a short news spot from WLOS, or something else that helped police find Jordan Earley. For now, I’m waiting with the rest of the Asheville community for details about what happened and how APD found him.

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9 thoughts on “Tweeting for Jordan: How social media played into a missing-persons search

  1. Caitlin Byrd

    Not from what I can tell. I’m still trying to get the full story and how APD found him, however, no luck yet.

  2. ashevillain7

    Isn’t this guy entitled to some privacy? I wish both you and him the best but does this really need to play out in public?

  3. Media Watcher

    Caitlin Bryd writes, “At this point, it wasn’t about being a concerned student anymore. It was about journalistic responsibility and the right for the public to know Jordan Earley was missing.”

    From The News Manual: A Professional Resource for Journalists and the Media http://www.thenewsmanual.net/Manuals Volume 3/volume3_62.htm
    You have no right to intrude on a person’s private life where there is no public benefit.

    Jordan Earley is not a public figure. Does the public have a “right to know” that he was missing? Is Mr. Catastrophe’s comment about the student journalist’s media ethics course relevant? Would this make a good “teachable moment” in her course? Did the public have a “right to know” in this case? Did Mr. Early have a “right to privacy” in this case?

  4. HKUSP

    I was thinking the same thing….maybe you haven’t heard because it is a personal (and private) health matter and therefore none of your business. If we told you “thanks for your help”, would you leave him alone?

  5. Margaret Williams

    Privacy: Jordan’s fraternity brothers put it out on Facebook that he was missing, and they asked for help.

  6. Media Watcher

    An important detail that the fraternity brothers put out a public call for help. Thanks for clarifying.
    Ms. Byrd’s article about her experience was thoughtful Now that the matter has indeed become public, perhaps we can look for a follow-up.

  7. ashevillain7

    While it may be true true that the frat bros. put it on Facebook, was it posted within a network of people who are friends? If so, isn’t that private? Or at least more private than the Mountain Xpress? Same thing for Twitter. Aren’t the followers of whoever tweeted this a more private group than the Twitter feed on the MX webpage? (side note and my opinion: boo social media!)

    And now that the original intent of these messages has been satisfied (i.e. he has been found) isn’t this guy entitled to some level of privacy the rest of the way at least? I mean were not talking about a public figure here (ref: Media Watcher’s post). Jordan Earley didn’t ask for any publicity. His life should be kept private.

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