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Hey journalists: Just because something’s public, doesn’t mean it’s OK to use it

Hamilton Nolan, a Gawker writer I greatly respect but who I’ve disagreed with before, has a new post up regarding using Tweets publicly. I here want to respond to one or two major claims I think Nolan misses. This isn’t just about Twitter or Tweets, but using content or speech we create that’s “public”.

(I wanted to write a longer piece about Buzzfeed’s laziness leading to unethical practices, but responding to Nolan’s piece might allow me to tease out other ethical matters.)

Background

Nolan is responding to the view that public Tweets shouldn’t be written/published with the idea of that Tweet – or series of Tweets – going up on a media platform. 

The example surrounding this is Buzzfeed’s use of Tweets, from sexual assault survivors, to “write” a post. The survivors were initially asked by another Twitter user, though that initial Twitter user herself was not asked. It’s a whole stunning mess of integrity and practice, since it appears that some survivors feel violated and ashamed. I’m deliberately not linking.

Nolan, however, doesn’t see a problem with the sort of conduct Buzzfeed displays, it seems. I want to argue that ethics is more than ticking off legal boxes and accepting disclaimers.

It’s public, stupid

Nolan is a skilful writer, so the condescension you’ll read is deliberate.

“The things you write on Twitter are public. They are published on the world wide web. They can be read almost instantly by anyone with an internet connection on the planet Earth. This is not a bug in Twitter; it is a feature. Twitter is a thing that allows you to publish things, quickly, to the public.”

This is descriptively true of course. Nolan then reminds us that just because people don’t read your Tweets doesn’t mean “the public does not have ‘a right’ to read your Twitter. Indeed, they do.” Nolan also indicates it is possible to make your feed private – that until you do, your entire feed is public and available for anyone from the public to use.

“it is possible that someone will quote something that you said on Twitter in a news story”. 

The main problem: legal is not ethical

Then he presents the crux of what my problem is with his (recurrent, from my last disagreement) argument of: because it’s there, it is OK to be used. No problem.

His paragraph must be read in full:

[That someone will quote you] is something that you implicitly accept by publishing something on Twitter, which is public. That is well within the rights of a "journalist," as well as anyone who clicks the "Retweet" button on something that you published on Twitter. Just because you wish that someone would not quote something that you said in public does not mean that that person does not have the right to quote something that you said in public. When we choose to say something in public, we choose to broadcast it to the world. The world is then able to talk about it. That is how it works. Anyone who has ever publicly spoken or written something dumb (hello), only to have that thing quoted and insulted by others, has probably wished that the thing that they said or wrote was not public. That feeling, while understandable, is only a wish. It does not mean that the thing they said or wrote was not, in fact, public.

Note: Nowhere in Nolan’s paragraph, or indeed post, will you find condemnation or criticism or a moment of hesitation about whether a “journalist” should use public Tweets, just because it’s public (this circular reasoning makes anyone dizzy). All this entire argument rests on is a “right” premised on a Tweet being public. 

This is a legal and obvious disclaimer that businesses must make. But journalists are people, not machines ready to snatch up anything and everything that is public (or rather they shouldn’t be).

While I agree we should all be careful about what we say on Twitter – and have written ad nauseum about this – those initial Tweets didn’t magically appear on Buzzfeed; people’s statements don’t just emerge ex nihilo on news sites. 

Someone decides what’s news. Someone decides what should be published. And presumably, if this is a person, she can ask herself if it’s ethical to do so. Not just whether she has a “right” to; not only whether she’ll be prosecuted or fired if she does so; but whether it’s moral to take someone’s words, frame context as the journalist wants, then stick in that quoted person’s statement because the statement is public

Moral questions you should ask can be (but are not necessarily): What about the impact to the person himself? Will it harm him significantly/unnecessarily to have his words there? Is this a person who deserves to be quoted – for good or ill – from the pages of the Internet? Have I obtained consent?

Indeed, this sounds similar to Nolan’s previous argument to me that “news is news” and that’s why they published a clip of guy shooting himself in the head on live TV.

Because it’s news

Again: that’s not the point. Someone, like, say an editor for a widely read, incredibly popular site, decides what his audience should read or see or hear. There are events of all kinds happening in the world: writers decide to write on them, editors decide to accept pitches or publish posts, videos, etc. (or reject). These reported events don’t just bleed their reality onto people’s brains and events all over the world go by unnoticed.

The media isn’t a robot and proclaiming your rights tells me you have a grasp on legality but not morality. Anyone can read the fine-print but, as a media person with probably a large platform, we’d hope you’d also have a moral print in fancy fonts so that we trust you to not become unnecessary targets.

It’s not wrong because it’s legal

Sean Frederick made a public Tweet that satirised racists’ responses to the recent racially diverse Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad; Frederick even used the laughable #Benghazi hashtag to highlight US conservative silliness. Buzzfeed — yes, hello — decided to compile a list of racist responses to the ad and Mr Frederick’s was included, with no indication that his was satire. As Tim Sampson highlights

To a drive-by observer of Sean Frederick's tweet, it might appear as if he's sincerely joining the chorus of xenophobic, racist rage the ads provoked (though the non sequitur #Benghazi hashtag should clue one into the satire). But a look at the rest of his feed reveals a Boston bartender who likes cracking the occasional Twitter joke with no readily apparent political agenda.

Buzzfeed by definition isn’t meant for deep readings. It’s yellow buttons are all reaction and encourage merely that; it’s short, snappy, that’s meant to evoke a sharp reaction – whether happy or sad – that makes you want to share. Depth is not really part of its mandate.

And it has a right to do so. 

And certainly people should learn to actually judge someone from more than one or two Tweets. They should perhaps judge someone not merely on the Twitter profile at all – though a better case could be made for doing so. (The author of the Buzzfeed post attempted a mild disclaimer: “Some of these might be jokes, but it’s so hard to tell anymore” but didn’t appear to care enough to try find out which because who cares, right? It’s public. It’s news.)

The point is that the framing of Mr Frederick’s Tweet had him appear as another racist white person. Whether he was or wasn’t isn’t the point – it’s that using a huge platform like Buzzfeed, using the power of the media, to take someone’s Tweet like this can be costly. Certainly Mr Frederick thought so, threatening to sue Buzzfeed if they did not remove it (smartly, Mr Frederick has not deleted the Tweet from his feed).

Nolan can claim that Mr Frederick’s Tweet was public. But what kind of defence can you make that it was used to falsely and horribly portray him to a much wider audience as a racist? The Internet is known for reacting, not reflection; unless Buzzfeed did an entire article on how wrong they were, people would just assume he’s a racist and move on. 

It’s not really a reader’s job to find out more – it’s a reporter’s. It’s a journalist’s. That’s why we read them because they have the training and they’re employed to do that kind of hard work. Ideally, audiences shouldn't be passive - and usually aren't. But again, we expect reporters to have done a better job since they're trained to.

The Daily Dot quotes Mr Frederick’s friend, Luke O’Neil who correctly summarises the overarching point

On the one hand, everyone should know by now that posting a tweet is putting them on the record in front of the entire world, but on the other hand, there’s zero responsibility placed upon anyone doing tweet roundup lists to verify that what the person said was true, or what they actually meant. It’s roughly analogous to the problem with revenge-porn websites. If you don’t want your naked picture on the Internet, don’t take one. But once it’s gotten out, that’s certainly not worth ruining someone’s life over.

That’s the problem. All the power rests with someone [the reporter] who actually has almost zero moral responsibility. This imbalance of moral accountability is perhaps why media people retreat to legal descriptors, rather than ethical justification - they don’t even need to have one to continue, whereas targets do as they’ll be faced with the backlash or negative portrayal.

This doesn’t mean the media is never the target — of course they are, and we must oppose any who take immoral actions against media people. They are, like their audience, people, too. Not just a brand. Just as we are not just our Twitter profiles or Tweets.

Conclusion

We’re more than just legal followers: we want to be better at what we do, whether that’s existing with others, our jobs, and so on. The law isn’t what helps you be a better person; a moral framework, in various considerations, does. You need to interrogate what that means, how it applies – wondering whether you’re doing something that’s right or wrong should be a constant, not exceptional, instance. Dismissing moral claims by shoving it under a legal carpet doesn’t eliminate the lumps you stand atop: yes, you’re above us but only because you’ve hidden the dirt.

I have a great deal of respect for media people, including Gawker most of the time and Hamilton Nolan more so. I even admire many at Buzzfeed. 

Yes: We’re all public figures and our statements are public.

At the very least, though, media individuals can attempt to understand some of us are trying to learn that with new social media technology; mildly, they can attempt to obtain consent, proper framework, some minor gruntwork to discover if the person is worth targeting and framing in a particular way; but, majorly, they should remember their jobs aren’t robotic, they aren’t servants to “news” – someone has decided it’s news, but that’s not a reason to focus on it, a reason to write about it, nor a reason to give into it. Similarly, just because something is public and juicy doesn’t mean you should devour it so you can regurgitate it to your readers. 

Readers, too, are influenced by how you write and frame – not merely reacting as if they saw an event first-hand. Journalists should care beyond legal frameworks about their work, if they care for integrity. Yes, they’ll mess up since they, too, are human and we should forgive them that. But mess ups can be avoided too by considering your actions under a moral, not merely legal, light. 

Attempt empathy, of those you’re quoting, of even those you believe wrong: you can have empathy and still decide, as I did, that some articles targeting individuals should be written – but, overall, if empathy is not at least some major part in a moral framework, then it’s hard to fathom how you justify publishing a story. 

Unless of course, it’s news. Right?

Image Credit: BrAt82 / Shutterstock

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