Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Permission for What?" [Head Explodes]

If I were a working journalist right now – and thank the stars I am not, for various reasons which need not be reproduced here – I’d be reading this article, and reading it real good.

Here’s the rub: Everything we put on the Internet is public. Even the stuff we think is private. But for journalists to use that information without letting us know it’s being used is wrong. Amanda Hess says it better:

The new, virtual man on the street doesn’t even need to be aware of a reporter’s existence in order to turn up on a highly trafficked news source with name, photo, and social media contact information embedded. It’s the journalist’s “right” to reproduce these public statements, sure. But our rights are expanding radically, while our responsibilities to our sources are becoming more and more optional.

Hess points out that many media companies are acting responsibly, are aware of individual social networks expectations, norms, and suchlike. But she also sees a lopsided application of that responsibility, quoting freelance writer Anna Holmes as saying “I’ve seen a lot of inconsistency in the application of some of these expectations. It often seems like the rules should only apply to the good guys, and that’s just not a serious way of thinking—you can’t just divvy up the world that way.” And we all know it’s the media or reporters deciding who the good guys are, sometimes fairly, sometimes not so fairly. The good guys get a fair shake, sometimes. The bad guys, well, they’re bad in public, so it’s shaming time.

Why am I glad I’m not a journalist in this day and age? Because the temptation to use Facebook and Twitter as public sources and public fodder for stories is intense, and the ease at which identification of the speaker can be offered to pass editorial muster is frighteningly easy without – as Hess points out – necessarily having to contact the person who spoke the words being quoted. It’s all public, after all, right?

And it does happen. I’ve seen it happen. And while it may pass traditional ethical muster, it’s an ugly way to do journalism.

What would I do?

Contact, first and foremost. Contact. Let them know what they’ve said can and will be used for or against them. Notes would have to include screen captures. Conversations would have to include caveats, on the really important stuff, that removal from the Internet or a denial of a right to use won’t necessarily be recognized or honored.

And social networks, for the most part, would have to be treated like Wikipedia: Good for general information, but not near as good as a voice conversation, email, or anything else under the sun.

Editors should be asking: So, you quoted someone from Twitter. Do they know you’re quoting them, and why?

Ethicist Kelly McBride at Poynter doesn’t get it, when she asks of this BuzzFeed post in question: “Permission for what?”

Hells bells, woman. Permission to have a social network chat used on a national news platform. Permission to be prepared for the sudden onslaught of fame that the mention is likely to bring, for both good and bad. Permission to be aware that the conversation is suddenly going to spiral big.

Yes, the Internet is public. Yes, things will go viral with and without the help of national media platforms. But national media platforms have the ethical obligation to communicate not only with their audiences, but with their sources of information for that audience. People I spoke with in person or called on the phone or emailed for information knew they were going to be quoted or featured in the newspaper – because I told them. Would it pass ethical muster to speak to someone face-to-face, to take their picture, but not really tell them what that information and their likeness was going to be used for until, oops, after it’s spread all over the Interwebs? I don’t think so.

McBride is too lost in the weeds of the ethics of reporting on sexual assault cases (as important as that is) to see that there’s a more fundamental ethical blunder she seems to be defending. Yes, the originator of the original stream of tweets is upset (rightly so) that she was not identified by BuzzFeed (or Poynter) as a victim of rape as well as those featured in the tweets, so that makes discussion of reporting on sexual assault prevalent. But again, there’s something fundamental missing here.

McBride (don’t know about BuzzFeed, but it doesn’t appear that they did) says she “reached out” to the originator of the conversation BuzzFeed is touting – but in the comments on her own column, the originator (ChristineFox in the comments) says that “reaching out” was limited to one tweet before publication:

You reached out to me? You sent me 1 tweet that I didn’t see until this morning. You never spoke with me.

She should have. And so should have BuzzFeed. Before publication. With the Internet in play, more often than not the race to be first seems also to include a race to the bottom.

Congratulations are in order to The Root, however, which did contact Christine Fox before publication. You know, they did actual reporting, rather than social media regurgitation.

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