Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Journalism, Social Media & Ethics: Is It OK To Cite An Observed Tweet As A Direct Quote?

Credit: Microsoft Online ClipArt
Here's a question I've been mulling over for some time: Are random tweets fair game for journos? Can they quote you as if you were interviewed, without ever contacting you? That is, should journalists mine other people's Twitter conversations for use as quotes in an article, if they were never part of the conversation in the first place? Or do they have to cite them as Tweets and declare that they just "overheard" all the comments they are quoting?

Let me explain: I have a Google alert set up for various terms related to my blog so that I can see where my content is getting used, re-used and sometimes scraped entirely. Given that mine is not a money-generating blog, and that I fully support the freedom of information, I'm more interested in my reach and ensuring that my content is re-used with attribution. For example, I've discovered one of my posts being cited by in The Guardian's On Being Digital column and one of my tweets in a Forbes blog post. With attribution. Kewl stuff.

But every once in a while, I come across something that I don't like: like the time a tweet I issued was used as a quote in a news article with the preamble "Tanya Snook said,..."

And it stuck me as odd.

The article never noted that I made the comment on Twitter. In fact, the way it was written, it implied that I had made the statement directly to the writer who had never contacted me nor informed me that they were using my tweet as a quote.

And I was uncomfortable with that.

Here's why: Yes, I tweeted the comment publicly, so it wasn't offensive to me that it get re-used. And yes, it was used in context. However, it was incredibly misleading the way it was presented: implying that I had been interviewed for the piece. But the author never even attempted to contact me directly to ask me a single question, and instead cited a general tweet to no one in particular as a quote in their piece. Now, the piece was benign enough that I was not concerned about its tone or content, and my tweet was used in context; they didn't manipulate the words themselves. So that's good.

Buuuuut, it was the first time I wondered about ethics and journalistic integrity of reporters using social media for sources. I cite lots of tweets, personal conversations, and interviews but I always clearly state how I got my info: I saw a tweet, someone said to me, I chatted with... hoping that clearly informs you, the reader, of how I got my information. I hope, as well, that this approach affords you some peace of mind as a potential content lead (since so many of you send me links and story ideas) that I will always properly attribute how I got my content; that you don't have to worry about me lurking on your Twitter stream and incorporating random things you say into my posts without proper context. That's my commitment to you, as your follower and as the author of this blog.

If journalists and bloggers (and anyone else who writes and publishes) can't be trusted to properly qualify our sources, would that make you a little more cautious about what you post in your Twitter feed? Sure, there's always the risk that something you say get taken out of context, that your words get turned around on you. People do that all the time. But I would hope that a journalist, writing in a news publication, would uphold their commitment to journalistic integrity to properly represent how they obtain information and be transparent and honest with their audience.

If it's unethical to make up a quote if you can't reach a source; is it appropriate to mine other people's tweets and treat them as quotes for your story without a disclaimer of some sort? What do you think? Would it make you question news sources? Has it happened to you? If so, did it make you more aware of what you say and how you say it on Twitter, knowing that it could show up in the news as a quote, as if you'd been interviewed for the story?

Aaaaaaand, debate!


Anonymous said...

Would a Journalist listen in on a few friends joking around, catch their names, and repeat what was said as a serious, direct quote? They might, but it's unethical.

But that's in effect what they're doing by mining Twitter. People will respond differently if they're going to be published: the context is very different for what we say. And confusing a tweet for a Press Release is simply unethical.

Rob said...

I suppose it would be most directly comparable to investigative journalism- do you consider eavesdropping, wiretapping, and gaining fraudulent access to be unethical in journalism? It's certainly a long-standing method to use sources without their knowledge or consent, when it fits the piece.

Of course, the flip side of that is that those things are necessary for exposés, but if the person is easily accessible, how is it necessary then? And also, the investigative journalist risks legal and extralegal repercussions in order to get the story, rather than just browsing twitter in a comfortable office.

But is the work involved in information-gathering applicable to the ethical-ness of its use? And as a public information source, is Twitter any different than, say, microfiche newspapers and registry records? Are they attributed? Should they be?

I'm not sure I have any particularly strong opinion on the matter either way, but these are the things I think about in relation to this issue.

Lara said...

I agree with you whole heartedly. I think it's fine for someone to reference something I said in a tweet but it's sketchy to make it seem like I said it to them. It would bother me and I think it makes the writer look like they are willing to bend what's true for a story and ultimately that means I would think less of them as a writer.

nelly said...

i'm of the (strong) opinion that the journalist needs to reference the source as Twitter, and note that it's "lifted" if there was no exchange b/ween journo and user.
I've been in a situation where I was asked if I was comfortable with a tweet appearing (not stating my full name, just the screen shot of the tweet), and I was fine with that.

That line (authorized tweet reproduction) is what makes a piece professional / well-researched or just lazy journalism.

If i'm the one making the story, I'd go to the lengths of verifying that the person tweeting the interesting content has a habit of sharing online, and is not just a one-time / hoax /mock tweet. that establishes further credibility imo.

Just b/c it's public on Twitter, doesn't mean there's a need for lack of etiquette.

and don't get me started on photos..

Lindsay said...

The lack of etiquette re: the journo not consulting you is shocking. S/he should have consulted you on your tweet - it might have been innocuous to include it, but imagine if you had written off the cuff and could be misconstrued.

I think the jury's still out on what Twitter really represents. Is it a way to talk about our obsession with Justin (Bieber or Trudeau)? Is it a savvy way to market? Or is it a way to engender true discussion of serious news/events/issues?

When we finally figure out what the medium really means, I think we'll figure out how to handle the message (to borrow very badly from a mind greater than mine).

Tanya Snook said...

Thanks, all for your comments. Clearly this is not black and white. People still seem to be applying different values toward the treatment of public content published to social media. We're far from having this one figured out, but the more we can identify misuse the more we can define some boundaries and guidelines for usage. I don't think that the offender saw themselves in this post; in fact, they shared it themselves, ironically. But maybe it's affected them on some level and they won't make the same mistake twice.

albina N muro said...
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