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MediaFebruary 17, 2016

If it’s public is it fair game? Why we as media need to change the way we report on social media

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News site reports about social media backlash – social media backlash ensues. Ex-churnalist Jess McAllen says this cycle needs breaking. 

UPDATE: comment from RNZ’s Megan Whelan appended at close.

Yesterday published a story largely based on a Facebook post by Old Mout Cider on the 6th of February regarding its decision to pull an offensive ad. In the story, the journalist quoted what the Facebook commenters’ said on Old Mout’s page when the company announced they were pulling the ad.

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One commenter praised the decision. When she wrote her comment, 11 days ago, no one messaged her but after the Stuff story went up yesterday she starting receiving abusive messages. She tweeted Stuff, asking if they could remove her last name, so people couldn’t track her down, and just keep her first name.

Stuff responded saying they were happy to give her a call “but we won’t remove something that has been posted on a large public page”.

Despite backlash, her last name remained in the story and in further response to complaints on Stuff’s Facebook page, an acting editor for Stuff commented: “We would never facilitate online bullying or harassment of any kind on our site or networks. We’ve included a quote in a story that was made by an individual on a large, public Facebook page. We haven’t linked to that person’s profile. If they are being approached via Facebook it must be via the original post she made on the page, and so is likely worth bringing up with that page or with Facebook if it’s in breach if their terms and conditions. We’ve offered to talk to the individual directly to discuss her concerns and are still keen to do that if she wishes.”

The comment was removed at 11.24pm.

Last year, I was asked to write a story about a Facebook post that had amassed heaps of likes. It was about an Auckland bar owner who was asking for suggestions on how to keep people away who were making his bar feel less safe.

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I rang him for comment and he provided it and was very good natured. The story then was picked up by the Herald and One News; neither went to him for comment. He was bombarded, his image splashed across national websites as the picky bar owner “lashing out”. All from a Facebook post that a higher-up at a media organisation happened to see. The post was public. In journalism terms it was technically fair game. But the definition of public has changed in the internet age and journalists are stepping into an increasingly grey territory with no widely agreed-upon standards.

Journalism schools should teach classes in social media journalism. How to: find a source by stalking their cousin’s sister’s dog on Facebook, bashfully call a D-list NZ celebrity about their latest social media gaffe, choose which “reaction tweets” to embed in a story, deal with the subsequent abuse from the public for covering such inane stories.

In my first year-and-a-bit of journalism 60% of my time was spent on stories sourced from and largely created out of social media posts. I can now vet any potential Tinder date with deeply uncomfortable ease. I managed to track down a waiter flirting with my friend the other weekend with just his first name and place of work.

It disgusts me. Old habits die hard.

In the past year as social media habits increase we have also been treated to a menagerie of social media stories – some funny, some harmful to reputations, some way too intrusive.

Remember when New Zealand media reported, even showed photos, of a Christchurch couple having sex at their office? There were huge debates in newsrooms about this, with one side arguing it was in the public arena and the other crying for common decency – jobs and marriages were at stake. People commenting on Facebook memorial pages are often unaware that reporters are keeping an eye on them, looking for comments to put in stories, and get a huge shock when, in a time of excruciating pain, their full name is propelled onto a national platform. It’s common for stories to be solely written off a social media post (time efficient! Easy clicks!). It’s an art, just read my terrible attempt at trying to flesh out a story based on an old Natalia Kills video.

Twitter and Facebook are public spaces. And conversations you have in public spaces are by nature public. You want privacy? Email, text, phone. It seems fair. But apply this to the offline world and things crumble quickly. Don’t want me butting in on your conversation at McDonalds? Should have gone to your bedroom. Don’t want me rifling through your rubbish bag – filled with prescription bottles, condoms, notes? Maybe you shouldn’t have put it in a public street.

The boundary between private and public is blurry. It always has been. We do private stuff in public and while, legally, technically, we can violate the privacy of those moments – grieving, an intimate conversation, having a breakdown – mostly we don’t. Because it’s universally understood as hugely rude.

While Facebook offers privacy options, they are so complicated that many users don’t realise their page is public. Most don’t ever anticipate that something they post would be of any interest to a journalist in the first place.

Ethical guidelines from pre-social-media-times say journalists should show compassion for those who may be adversely affected by news coverage, using particular sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects (people not usually in the public eye).

But according to social media logic, everyone is in the public eye. This means a teen with 10 followers spouting opinions about Justin Bieber has the same standing as a politician or celebrity with 100,000 followers and the media (with some exceptions) largely don’t cater to this difference – prepared to profit (or lose less money) in the name of an outrageous tweet or facebook comment.

As one journalist, who ironically wished to remain anonymous, said, “We are a mirror to society, not fucking Instagram where you can pick a flattering filter and later Photoshop the hell out of yourself.”

Much has been made of who owns photos once they are published on social media – standard rule of thumb is as long as they are credited, news organisations can pull them. This has its problems, as the Herald found out when they ran an Instagram photo of John Key at Big Gay Out, failing to notice the caption: “shelved a couple of mdma pills and twerked for the police officer”. The woman who took the picture has now changed the caption and commented (sorry, I’m aware I’m pulling a comment for a story here): “I do understand what he is doing to this country hence this sarcastic post (which my FRIENDS understand) which the Herald used with out my permission”. The picture has since been removed from the story.


Where journalists would once hit the streets, asking how people felt about Old Mout pulling an ad, they can now remain in the office, taking comments from Facebook. This seems murky, though, as at least the person on the street knew they were being interviewed and could decline to comment.

Part of being a journalist is about building up trust, especially with readers, but if they have negative experience being quoted out of context or when they thought they were in a private situation,that trust quickly disappears and you’ve lost valuable sources.

How do we even start to tackle this? There are obviously some people who are ignorant as to how their words would be viewed by reporters – even that they are being viewed by journalists – but there are others who want to control and manipulate the attention they get. It all comes down to context. It’s also important to note that most writing these stories are often acting on the direction of their bosses, they are usually junior, severely underpaid and did not think this is what journalism would be like when they were studying Watergate and watching John Campbell – I speak not only for myself but for countless under-25s I have talked to.

Compassion goes both ways. It’s easy to be sympathetic to sources who have been victim to horrific events but few find it easy to demand equal rights for those who take to social media to spew racist or misogynistic commentary.

One of my biggest regrets is when the head of socialite Ya Ya Club received death threats for a ball she was planning to hold that featured cultural appropriation. At the time I reasoned that I had gone to her for comment, that her club was already in the public eye and having Lorde comment meant a bunch of publicity anyway (the post was already blowing up on social media). However, being splashed upon a national website only elevated that and while some journalists wouldn’t have had qualms with it, when I heard she had gotten death threats I felt physically ill knowing I caused this. But that’s just me and perhaps why I’m no longer in a modern newsroom (again, this is why it would be nice knowing what you are getting into before graduating journalism school).

Facebook pages are easy to hack or impersonate, so not contacting a source for permission also raises identity confirmation issues.

Privacy and courtesy aside, the main problem lies within constraints of modern newsrooms not having enough time for the required stories to be pushed out so they can stay afloat: it’s lazy journalism – but not because the journalists are necessarily lazy, it’s more symptomatic of where our media landscape is at the moment.

In the absence of any identifiable guidelines in New Zealand on this complex issue, I’ve written a few questions that it would be cool if journalists – including myself – remember to ask before reporting social media stories:

  1. Was this shared to a close group, a personal profile or in a conversation?
  2. Did you contact the source about including the information in the story?
  3. Is the author a public figure? How public? How will this affect them?
  4. Is the harm that could come to the individual if the information is made public justified by the public benefit of the information?
  5. Why are you sharing this? Is it for clicks and clicks alone?
  6. What alternatives do you have for getting this information?
  7. What are the consequences of sharing this information? Will the person suffer because of what you have done? Are they likely to be stalked or harassed? Could they lose a job? Is this information their parents might not even be aware of yet?

In the end, just simply asking someone for a quote is probably going to be better than a grammatically-incorrect Facebook message.


What should we be doing?

Megan Whelan, RNZ’s community engagement editor – a new position created last year – manages the company’s social media accounts.

RNZ are working on a policy in regards to lifting content from social media. “We have to stick very closely to our guiding principles of balance, accuracy and fairness,” she says.

“So, for example, I’d rather we embed tweets or Instagrams in a story, rather than pasting them directly into it. Or, if we’re using a photo outside of an embed, we should be asking permission.

“Personally, on particularly sensitive subjects, I try to ask for permission to even embed a tweet, to make sure people are comfortable with them being shared outside the original platform. Someone saying a new movie is great is very different to someone sharing details of their mental health.”

Whelan says Facebook has a “public town square” element to communication but “just because you overhear something in the town square, doesn’t mean you can or should report it – particularly with attribution”.

However, if someone replies directly to RNZ or their Facebook page she says it is reasonable to use that in a story.

“There will always be exceptions to that – breaking news, high profile people, and developing stories that multiple people are working on – and I think we have to take it on a case-by-case basis, as we do with many editorial decisions.”

Whelan says asking to quote social media comments is a courtesy journalists should try to extend.

“We ask them in every other context if we can quote them. The lines are blurred because we can see it, and people who have commented “in public” have consented to do so. But taking comments changes the context they were made in, and that goes back to that editorial standard of fairness.”

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