Thursday, June 21, 2012

Addressing crime through social media and celebrity: A shift away from mainstream media agenda setting?

A video message from the band Metallica is making the rounds on social media, attracting more than 400,000 views on YouTube since its launch a week ago.  The clip has a somber tone, but contains no music.  It was posted by the Virginia State Police and has been tweeted by the FBI.   In it, Metallica singer James Hetfield asks for leads in the Morgan Harrington murder case and highlights the $150,000 reward. (Virginia Tech student Harrington disappeared outside a Metallica concert in Charlottesville, Va. in 2009.  Her remains were discovered in a remote field about 10 miles from the concert arena.)

Over the years, law enforcement has appealed to the public through traditional media for help in solving crime.  Authorities share sketches and descriptions of suspects to be broadcast during TV newscasts and published in the local newspaper.  And celebrities petition for worthy causes in publicity events to attract mainstream media coverage.  But pairing police and a heavy metal celebrity on social media to catch a killer seems out of the ordinary.  Or does it?

Increasingly, law enforcement agencies and celebrities alike are reaching out to the public directly via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.  The Boston Police Department, for example, @boston_police, has nearly 42,000 followers on Twitter, and the sheriff’s department in the small Louisiana community of DeSoto Parish regularly shares information with its 4,700 Facebook friends.  Metallica has nearly 26 million ‘likes’ on its Facebook page. 

By reaching fans, friends, and followers directly through social media, alternative sources such as these may be having an impact on the traditional media’s agenda-setting role.  Nearly four decades of research has shown a strong relationship between what the news media cover, and the issues and events the public deems important. But in an expanding social media environment with myriad information sources and emerging technologies, that role may be shifting. My research on the outpouring of tweets that followed the discovery of Morgan Harrington's body showed support for alternative-source agenda setting on Twitter. Metallica's condolences were linked to and retweeted more frequently than news stories of the discovery.

As the search for Harrington's killer continues, alternative sources persist in promoting Metallica's plea for help.  While mainstream news media did cover James Hetfield's message, the reporting overall, began and ended the day the video was released. But views of the Metallica video on YouTube continue to rise as the FBI, heavy metal fans, and others tweet and Facebook Hetfield’s plea, hoping to catch Morgan Harrington’s killer.

Video research presentation produced for ICA 2012:


  1. Social media is one of those helpful ways to say something about something. It is even helpful to some instances my phoenix seo team have enjoyed your article. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yeah, social media widely increase the popularity of its. Surprisingly, Americans spend 121 million minutes on social networking sites in a single month. Great Job.