What’s private on social media?

03/31/2013 7:46 PM

05/20/2014 10:41 AM

I’m often impressed with how compassionate readers of The Kansas City Star can be when discussing news coverage with me. That’s particularly true when the topic turns to sensitivity in reporting on human tragedy.

Pam Smith contacted me by email after reading a story on the front page March 27 about an accident that gripped the area last week.

“Understandably, all of us are upset about the tragedy that befell the Bresette family when a sign at the airport fell and killed their child and injured their family,” she wrote.

“At a time of such grieving and inexplicable loss this family is going through, I can't help but feel anger at seeing that the father's private Facebook comments are being printed publicly for the whole world to see in The Star's articles.”

This is something I consider often. In fact, it’s a discussion I’ve had with readers and Star staffers. It affects my work personally as I put together the “Networking” column, which runs in the weekly 913 news magazine. There I collect items from Facebook posts, tweets and website comments about various news events that have people talking.

I approach “Networking” with a philosophy that I think is shared by most journalists: I look at open Facebook posts, blog items, unprotected Twitter feeds and any other non-restricted online material the same way I would a printed pamphlet. If it’s published, it’s reasonable to assume the author intends for others to view it, and I see no reason in general for journalists to look at it differently.

However, Ms. Smith makes another, fair rejoinder: “As a Facebook user myself, I can attest to the fact that there are frequent changes that Facebook makes to the site, all designed to benefit Facebook and not in the interest of protecting user privacy. In fact, it requires much searching on the site and Googling to even keep up with how to maintain your privacy and not everyone is fully aware that their profile can be viewed by so many people.”

In that light, she considers publishing something on an open Facebook page unethical. She makes a good point about how confusing many social networks’ privacy policies can be. In my own experience, I’ve seen friends and family members write posts on people’s Facebook walls that were clearly meant as private communication.

And while not everyone uses Twitter in the same way, many tweeters approach the service as kind of a party-line email account.

These are reasons that journalists should be circumspect about mining social media. I spoke to the reporter about the Bresette family story that prompted this discussion. She said that she was in direct contact with members of the family, who told her that the father wanted The Star to use his Facebook comments as his public statement.

A photo that ran inside with the jump carried the credit, “Photo courtesy of Ryan Bresette,” and that’s a clue that the family was contributing actively to the coverage. I think the story should have stated that explicitly as well.

The social media goalposts are always moving, so it’s difficult to come up with hard and fast rules, which are sure to change with the next set of privacy policy updates.

Journalists should always be sensitive in choosing what to quote and how to attribute it, regardless of the platform it comes from. Technology doesn’t change that fundamental.

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