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!