Monday, August 16, 2010

You Are Your Own PR Agent

Update: As of 10:30 pm, has updated its story to say they've tried to contact Mr. Sloppy, but had no luck. Should have done that earlier. And I'm still dubious about taking a quote from a person you haven't technically spoken to yet.

Maybe I owe the folks at The Scroll an apology.

The Scroll is the newspaper at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where I cut my teeth in journalism before I figured out I’m no journalist. The bone I’ve privately picked with them is that they tend to rely on quotes yanked from the Internet as sources for their stories, rather than doing original reporting themselves. That smacks of “blogosphere” behavior, most unbecoming traditional journalism.

But I see the big boys at doing the same thing, and it’s irksome.

Here’s an example of a post pulled from Facebook into a story now circulating internationally:
The California Highway Patrol identified the driver as Brett Sloppy. Authorities said Sloppy is not facing any charges in the crash that took place Saturday at an off-road race in Southern California's Mojave Desert.

“Soo incredibly lost and devistated [sic] my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved,” the San Marcos resident said on his Facebook page late Sunday. “Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all.”
Don’t get me wrong – five years ago, ten years ago, when there was little social networking going on Internet-wise, finding people like Mr. Sloppy might have been a tedious undertaking. But now that we have the ginormous White Pages that is Facebook, finding people – and even people related to events; we don’t even really have to know their names to begin with now – is relatively simple.

But why not take it a step further? You found the guy. Is contacting him out of the question? Don’t tell me you’re too shy, or don’t want to tread into an already upsetting situation. You’re That’s your schtick.

But there’s no mention of trying to contact Mr. Sloppy, not even the sop of “attempts to contact Mr. X were unsuccessful.”

Is a Facebook posting now fair bait as quotable material, even without asking permission first?

I know the logic goes like this: Facebook is a public facing. People put stuff there so people can read it – especially if they’ve misunderstood Facebook’s privacy controls and throw stuff up there for anyone to see. Ergo, what is available on Facebook is like going into an open-pit opal mine: What you find, you keep.

That may be entirely true. Still doesn’t make it right. I hated contacting people when a tragedy had occurred, but I did it, and the old-fashioned way: In person, or by phone. Nasty business. Got yelled at a few times. But that’s part of the business, isn’t it? Most of the time, people where OK to talk. If they weren’t, I respected that.

But they ought to be given the chance to say yes or no, whether what they’ve posted is in a “public” space or not.

Do we become our own public relations experts, spinning and screening what we say in “public” spaces? I suppose we do. I’m aware enough that there are things I just don’t post in public. I’m not going to say this comes from media savvy or sophistication, because it doesn’t. It’s just a conscious choice on my part to be a bit more guarded online than others. And if the media’s new norm is to delve into Facebook and such for quotes without asking permission first, well, maybe that guarded attitude is a good one.

But I’m probably overreacting.’s Facebook mining may just be an anomaly noticed only in this story. (The Scroll’s anomalous behavior is a bit more widespread.) It’ll certainly be an interesting trend to watch.

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