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.



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.