As more journalists rely on social media to find ideas and sources, there is increasing confusion about what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to using material not originally intended for publication.
Recently, a college journalism professor found himself in the spotlight after he included a student’s Facebook page among documents he brought into a class on public records. Deadspin linked to the Facebook page of a Packers fan who seemingly took her cheating boyfriend’s game tickets in revenge. (Her page was deleted shortly after the Deadspin article, possibly because of the unintended attention).
And last year, a Tampa woman tweeted details of her sexual assault, within minutes of the attack, leaving reporters wondering whether to identify her.
Are tweets and Facebook posts from ordinary citizens fair game for reporting if the writers didn’t intend for them to be public? What about private individuals who find themselves at the center of a news event?
Twitter as a public platform
Most journalists agree that Twitter is inherently public, and anything said on Twitter is generally fair game to be reported upon. This is evident with the rise in popularity of tools like Storify, which allows reporters to aggregate public tweets around a breaking news event or other story.
“I consider everything on Twitter fair game and as long as I am confident that the person and the avatar are one and the same, I use it comfortably,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr by email. “Twitter is a village common and everything said there, however considered or not, is public. If I think something needs context, I will report it out, but I assume that if someone is saying something on Twitter, they want it to be known.”
Reuters has a similar policy. “We link if possible and cite the source. If it is public, it is fair game. If it is private we would ask them to go on record,” said social media editor Anthony De Rosa in an email.
However, Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editing fellow at Poynter, suggested that even though Twitter is public, seeking permission to use tweets is key.
“If I’m going to quote someone, the smart journalistic thing to do is to be in touch with that person beyond what you pulled off that site. Journalists should let people know when they’re performing journalism,” Banaszynski said by phone. “I also think that pulling something off a site without contacting [a] person further doesn’t allow the journalist to do deeper reporting or put the comment in context. It’s very easy to take just 140 characters out of context – and that’s bad journalism.”
Some celebrities and politicians use social media platforms, most commonly Twitter, because they expect to be quoted. In those cases, rather than simply being a mouthpiece for the individual, journalists also need to bring more reporting to the statement, to provide context and show motive.
Facebook, however, is a more complicated social network and a number of factors must be considered when taking material from an individual’s page.
Facebook can be private
While Facebook does offer privacy options for users, the complicated range of options for Facebook privacy settings also means that some users may not realize their page is public, or ever fathom a moment when something they post could be of interest to reporters. In these cases, some journalists make the case that public posts are fair game – but others disagree. Although a social media user may publish something that is technically “public,” that does not necessarily imply informed consent for that to be published in the media.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the hiring of Rachel Sterne as New York City’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer, and included several posts from her personal Facebook page in the story. The article cited posts Sterne’s friends had written on her page that were critical of her new boss, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s office responded: “Her personal Facebook page is for her and her friends.” Sterne also changed her profile settings to private after that, and the reporter in question could no longer view posts on her page.
Banaszynski noted the difference between sourcing from Facebook fan pages, personal Facebook profiles, and invite-only Facebook groups. Deciding whether to use material from areas of Facebook considered more private – and whether to seek permission to use said material – is usually made on a case by case basis.
“If it’s a public fan page, I have no problem looking at that and pulling from that. But if it’s a post between friends, I would hope a good journalist would contact the person, verify their identity and let them know they are using that info,” Banaszynski said. In the aforementioned Wall Street Journal story, in her opinion, the reporter should have sought Sterne’s permission before quoting posts from her personal Facebook page.