Social media + ethical journalism--it's complicated

Yesterday an interesting drama unfolded on Twitter and I'm trying to figure out how to tell the story.

Because by today, a big part of the story was just how, exactly, the media reported on the original events.

At some point yesterday a person I follow on Twitter retweeted an entry from a woman she follows.

"If you are not following @steenfox tonight you are missing something horrifying and powerful," her post read.

Curious, I clicked and started reading.

For the record, I'm not posting the Twitter ID for the first person in question because I don't have her permission, and this post is all about social media permission and the ethics of such. I am, however, posting Christine Fox's Twitter ID because she's very public at this point. I am not, however, reposting any of her entries. If you want to read them, go here.

Anyway, back to the story. Yesterday Fox asked her followers the following question: "What were you wearing when you were sexually assaulted?"

Fox asked the question as a way to dispel myths about assault and the way a sexual assault victim dresses or appears.

Fox, who has more than 15,000 followers, received an onslaught of replies that poured in over the course of several hours.

Frank, honest, startling, candid replies.

Powerful stuff.

Of course the Internet, as the Internet is wont to do, picked up on the story--retweeting, favoriting and mentioning many of the tweets.

Jessica Testa, a reporter at Buzzfeed picked up on the story and reached out to some of the people who tweeted their experiences and got their permission to quote their tweets in a story. The reporter also reached out to Fox but didn't hear back from her before the story was published. In the published story the reporter blurred out the pictures and names of some of the users quoted (I'm assuming those weren't blurred gave permission otherwise. Correct me if I'm wrong).

Fox was, to say the least, not pleased.

"Just spoke with @jts. She stated that she had the permission of every person used on her post. She did not however have MY permission."

That is true. And to err completely on the side of ethical fairness, perhaps Testa should have removed all of Fox's identifiying details.

Then again, Testa does have more than 15,000 followers (and has posted more than 345,000 tweets) and is thus, arguably, a public figure who was conducting a public dialogue in a public forum. Her Twitter feed is public--accessible to anyone to read at any time.

Fox aside, does that make it ethical to repost all tweets--even with the user's explicit permission?

I'd argue that yes, in the best of situations, it does make it ethically right--if not necessarily the right thing to do.

In the best of situations the reporter in question would have, in addition to asking permission, counseled each person on the possible repurcussions. Would have advised them that with the publication of this article by one of the Internet's biggest, most widely shared sites, their stories would no longer just be circulated to thousands upon thousands of people, but millions.

Did Testa do that? I don't know. I would hope so.

Either way the distinction here between what is right, ethically and what is simply the right thing to do is very, very fuzzy.

For the record, I am not criticiizing Testa. As much as I applaud Fox's ability to raise public discourse on this topic in a moving, compelling way, I also applaud Testa's attempt to chronicle that story as a collective whole.

Social media is an amazing tool--especially for journalists. But it's also a complicated tool that makes for complicated journalism. 

To that end, it was interesting to watch various print and TV news outlet tweet like crazy to the person who posted the now infamous plane crash selfie snapped after a US Airways flight crashed in Philadelphia today.

What's intersesting is that my highly unscientific study of a few sites shows that the user in question gave permission to use the photo--but her name is not mentioned.

Like I said, complicated stuff.


The #AmtrakRedsidency application process is (hopefully) a work-in-progress

Ever since writer Jessica Gross' random tweet earned her a residency with Amtrak, the Internet's been clamoring for the railway company to make it official.

It made sense then that when Amtrak announced Saturday that it was formally rolling out that #AmtrakResidency program, that every writer on the face of the planet (including your sister who blogs about food and your mom who crafts really long Facebook posts and of course, me, the person competing for the world record on how long it takes to finish a book) got totally excited. Never mind that only 24 applicants would be accepted, you can't get what you don't try for, right?

And then just as soon as everyone got excited, so started the backlash.

The Washington Post called the program "a sham," criticizing (among other aspects) the high price of travel on Amtrak, the company's tax subsidies and its stipulation that recipients act as a "spokesperson / endorser of [the] Amtrak brand."

Applications and writing samples that pass an initial evaluation will then be judged by a panel “based on the degree to which the Applicant would function as an effective spokesperson/endorser of [the] Amtrak brand.” That brand, it seems to me, is inertia. Slow-moving and price-gouging. Exclusive yet shabby. Especially when measured against the affordable high-speed rail in Europe, China and Japan. Amtrak, with its residency program, is exploiting the romance of the railways to endear itself to a demographic that likely can’t afford its prices. 

Oh, OK then. Let's conflate the entirely of Amtrak's corporate problems with this particular program. Sure, why not.

Of more concern, of course, is that Amtrak's application came with some terms that an applicant must consent to in order for his or her entry to be valid.

One clause in particular has caused a bit of a furor:

I get it, that wording does lead to some major hesitance.

But is it "poison"?

Does even applying for the residency make you a sellout?

To their credit Amtrak has responded at least once, clarifying that any and all use of a writer's work would be done so with the writer's prior permission. Make that prior, post-application, post-selection permission. And, reportedly, Alexander Chee--the writer who inspired Gross' initial tweet--is in talks with Amtrak to help the company clarify its language and make the application process/program more writer-friendly.

Here's hoping Chee--and other critics--will give Amtrak some insight into copyright laws, not to mention the creative process, and why people are so rightfully protective of their works.

That said I'm not willing to dismiss out of hand the program and its outcome. At least not yet.

I think it's a great idea with great potential. But, obviously, this is just the rough draft.  Amtrak officials have some things to learn and some points to refine. And, frankly, I don't think this is just about good P.R., it's put an interesting and valuable spotlight on the writing process and the value of one's words.

There's definitely value on that.


Check your depression privilege

I've been dealing with some quality depression lately.

I mean, this is the good stuff--no weak-ass, I'm just having a meh day kind of shit. But rather, a deep and hearty depression.

Then again, my depression isn't the super bad shit as far as mind trips go. I don't suffer from something more hardcore like bi-polar disorder. I gotta check my depression privilege, I just have good old-fashioned clinical depression and luckily, it hasn't really hit a critical point yet and so sometimes it feels wrong to talk about it--like, how can I complain about this little ol' thing when so many people have it much, much worse?

That said,  I am trying to understand it better--and understand how, in some ways, these feelings can help me and eventually make me feel better.

That distinction—between being better and feeling better—is significant.

We all want to feel better. It’s our God-given right, damn it.

Mostly, I keep this matter private, because depression doesn’t make for good company.

But perhaps it should.

In 2010, The New York Times explored the benefits of feeling blue in an article titled “Depression’s Upside.”

Having a case of the blahs just might have a “secret purpose … [as an] unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction,” reporter Jonah Lehrer surmised, drawing on a lengthy Psychological Review article that combined research and anecdotes from the likes of Charles Darwin, David Foster Wallace and various psychologists.

Lehrer’s article is too complex and lengthy to adequately sum up here, but the general conclusion is such: Depression can be beneficial, and perhaps we should learn to “embrace the tonic of despair.”

It's been nearly 20 years since I was first diagnosed with clinical depression, and I’m inclined to agree with Lehrer’s point—which is not to make light of the affliction’s often debilitating effects: the fatigue and sleeplessness, the sorrow and the anger, the anxiety and the malaise.

No doubt, depression hurts.

And though I don’t wholesale agree with the idea of psychologists who claim that “medical interventions can make a bad situation worse,” I can fully support the notion that “sadness comes with its own set of benefits.”

Why should we, after all, be so quick to try to rid ourselves of the feelings that make up who we are?

I’ve taken the meds before—when the anxiety and heaviness become too much to bear—but mostly I try to listen to my feelings. Sounds kind of hippie New Age, I know, but I learned a lot about myself when, years ago, a therapist suggested I stop trying to “shut down” the depression and, instead, allow myself some moments of quiet and reflection—some moments of listening and absorbing and processing.

“The next time you feel awful,” she told me. “Try lying down, closing your eyes and just allow it—just feel awful for a while.”

And so I did. I closed my eyes and I felt awful.

Really awful. And as I felt awful I thought about those feelings and why they existed. Eventually, however, my mind—as minds are wont to do—started to wander off to different, lighter points. Eventually I opened my eyes, stood up and went about the rest of my day. The issues that contributed to my depression were still there, but I felt clearer and more resolute about my ability to deal with them. Happier even.

This kind of “rumination,” psychologists argue, can help us think better, process feelings better and, ultimately, be better. Happier, more creative, more fulfilled.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all fix. It’s not a works-every-time solution. But it’s part of the process.

(Portions of this post originally appeared here in a somewhat different form. Did I just violate some sort of blogging etiquette? Maybe, but three years later, I'm dealing with another cycle of this. So there's that).