BuzzFeed controversy reveals split in ethics of embedding tweets

After reading a news report about a 60-year-old rape victim, Twitter user, Christine Fox (@steenfox), posed a simple question to her 17,000 followers: “What were you wearing when you were assaulted?” Hundreds of Twitter users shared their stories with Fox, and exposed a split in how journalists interpret the ethics of using tweets.

Jessica Testa, a reporter at BuzzFeed, sought permission from several tweeters before using their tweets in a listicle (an article that includes a mixture of commentary and embedded tweets, infographics and other images).

According to Fox, Testa requested permission from tweeters, but didn’t ask her. Christine Fox argued that it’s a violation of journalism ethics to use her image and the conversation she initiated without asking for her permission.

This led to a firestorm of responses from reporters at Poynter, Slate, Gawker and several other media outlets.

Hamilton Nolan, a reporter at Gawker, reminded Twitter users that unlocked accounts are considered fair use. He wrote, “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.”

Other journalists agreed with Nolan. Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and senior lecturer at Poynter, wrote an opinion article that echoed Nolan’s argument. She used a question to counter Fox’s claim that using tweets without permission is unethical:  “Permission for what?”

In her response, McBride wrote: “Many on Twitter rose up and pointed out that Twitter is public, which is true. And while there is a widely accepted guideline in journalism that you don’t identify rape victims without their permission, @steenfox didn’t identify herself as a survivor in two tweets that asked others to share their stories. Neither did Testa. She is only identified as the one who posed the question. Because you pose a question that provokes an interesting answer, does that give an ethical claim to control the story that emerges?”

Poynter later issued a correction when they discovered Christine Fox revealed her sexual assault in her Twitter, but did not retract McBride’s story.

Reporters Kate Knibbs of the Daily Dot and Mark Colvin of ABC Radio also argued that tweets should be considered fair use.

Kate Knibbs embedded Fox’s tweets without consulting her. She explained her reasoning as, “She is writing on a public platform that’s deliberately set up to facilitate easy resharing. She could have locked her Twitter account and denied my attempt to follow her so I couldn’t access her tweet. But Twitter is explicit in the way it gives users permission to share other people’s content; this includes users (like me) who choose to share content to their digital publication.”

However, Knibbs also wrote that just because journalists can do something doesn’t mean that they should. She is highlighting the difference between the legal rights journalists have under the First Amendment and their moral commitments.

Journalists follow a strict code of ethics, but the rise of social media will challenge the effectiveness of these ethical guidelines.

More than 1,000 people have signed a Change petition that demands apologies and retractions from Poynter and Gawker. It states in part:

“Due to the increased level of visibility we are demanding that journalists, media companies and social media platforms like Twitter take the steps below to not only protect users but to outline the ethical and moral obligations journalists have to not engage in violence toward marginalized people, survivors of sexual violence and others when engaging in online discussions.”

Kelly McBride is learning from this experience. In a follow-up article at Poynter, she highlights four specific lessons she’s learned during this process.

However, all journalists are on a learning curve. Journalists are navigating new terrain, and the BuzzFeed controversy is simply a growing pain when it comes to media ethics.