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Monday, April 24, 2006

Should reporters seek permission to reprint online comments?

Just emerged from my deadline haze and saw this thought-provoking column from Ted Vaden, a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer. He dissects a variation of a privacy issue that I think about often — whether or not newspaper reporters should seek permission to reprint information people have posted in public forums online.

The topic came up after the RNO ran a story about a neighborhood organizing to oppose a nightclub.

Residents of a Raleigh neighborhood...were surprised to find themselves quoted in The News & Observer about a local controversy. They had posted comments on a Yahoo group site for residents of the Fox Run neighborhood about a nearby nightclub that neighbors complained was a public nuisance. The N&O quoted three messages posted on the site with the authors' names attached. One said, "we all need to push hard as we can, any way that we can to get this place closed down for good."

Vaden essentially argues that this reporter should have called these residents and asked for their permission before putting their comments in the paper. But some of his colleagues disagree with him.

Dan Holly is editor of The North Raleigh News, which is the N&O section in which the story appeared. He said he understood why the quoted residents might feel aggrieved at seeing their names in the paper, but he thought their community site was fair game: "The message board was an accurate and honest way for us to get a sampling of neighborhood opinion."

Holly also said, "When you have a group that is setting out to do something as bold as shutting down a legitimate business, it seems like getting your name in the paper is something that is bound to happen."

Vaden writes:

I have a feeling that the residents had no such expectation -- obviously, or they wouldn't have called to complain. I think we should have called the residents, for a couple of reasons.

First, a newspaper's first obligation is verification, and we couldn't have known for sure that the authors of the messages were who we said they were without checking with them.

But beyond that, newspapers don't normally quote people, especially those not savvy about media, without their knowledge. A good rule of thumb is if we can expect that, in most cases, people would be surprised to see their statements in the paper, we should check with them first. Sometimes that means we'll miss a juicy quote or even a story, but the newspaper's reputation for fairness is more important.

I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I'm definitely in favor of contacting people to verify their identites, but I'm not sure it's being fair to let sources decide what I can and can't report about what's online. If it's available for anyone with an internet connection to see (those Yahoo groups only require users to sign up for a free Yahoo account), if you can link to it from a blog, if you can direct someone to find it, it's not private. Once the information is out there in a public online space, the person who posted the information is no longer the gatekeeper. Asking for permission to report a comment like that is like telling that person that yes, they can control who sees their comments, when in fact they can't.

I probably wouldn't have asked for permission to reprint those comments. I would probably have contacted the source and let them know that I was planning to use them. If they didn't want me to use them, they could delete them, thereby removing them from the public sphere.

I guess that's kind of a hard-line approach, but that's my gut reaction. It irks me when people post things online then want me to pretend like no one can see them. I feel like I'm validating their mistaken notions of online privacy. And it makes me feel like I'm conspiring with them somehow. That makes me feel dishonest, especially when the person in question is clearly seeking attention or organizing for a cause.

It's like they want to have their cake and eat it, too — they want to use the Internet for their purposes, but they don't want people who disagree with them to know about it. That doesn't seem right to me.

This is something I deal with more and more lately, so I'm curious to hear what people think. And keep in mind that my opinions are still evolving.

April 24, 2006 at 04:43 PM in Media/Keeping an eye on the competition | Permalink


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I think that once you put something out there on-line it is fair game. The newspaper should have verified the identities of the authors and I would think that any reputable paper would let them know out of courtesy that they were going to use the quote in a story, but the information is public once it is published on-line.

Any expectation of privacy on the internet is a fallacy. Maybe if this sort of thing happens more often, people will break out of this illusion that there is privacy on the internet. It is so common for people to forget that anyone can read what they write on-line. I have done that myself a few times.

This reminds me of the Blondie comic in the paper today.

Posted by: charity | Apr 24, 2006 7:48:59 PM

Wow, never thought of this before. I think I'd agree that the identity should be verified, and so in the process informing the person that their comments are being used for a story.

Posted by: evening | Apr 24, 2006 8:10:29 PM

The ironic thing is- almost nobody verifies that the people posting comments on blogs are who they say they are. Case in point- I'm not Haik Bedrosian. I'm actually the spirit of Andy Kaufman and Haik has no idea he's channeling me right now. He can't be held responsible for these comments.

Posted by: Haik Bedrosian | Apr 24, 2006 8:42:53 PM

And I can't be held responsible if I shoot you in the face, Kaufman! Stop stealing my identity and scram Casper!

Posted by: Dick Cheney | Apr 24, 2006 8:45:33 PM

Casper?! Oh that is in poor taste, Cheney! Have some respect for the dead!

Thank you veddy much!

Posted by: Andy Kaufman | Apr 24, 2006 8:47:13 PM

I agree. Once I put something up on the web, it becomes public information, anyone can access it. I would expect the information being printed to direct people to my site for a full and in-context quote, but that's probably too much to hope for. The issue of anonymity is a concern for me, as well. I publish under the name of Razmarie, but that's a name I use to protect my identity (to some degree), and one I use for certain art and music projects I am involved with. If someone publishes comments and uses the bloggers pseudonym, I begin to question the validity of the comment to start. I mean, I could simply be ranting and raving for the sake of my art. Everything I say as Razmarie could be what I really feel, or it could be total BS. This issue certainly raises some very good questions.

Posted by: razmarie | Apr 24, 2006 8:54:12 PM

Absolutely, no question a person's identity must be verified. Basic journalism 101.
Plus, while they have a source on the phone, wouldn't a reporter want to get them to elaborate on their point, get their own quote to build a credible report from and distinguish their work from what could already just be found out there?
If someone says something at a public meeting and you want to quote it, you've still got to track the source down in the hall after the meeting, find out who they were and get the correct spelling of their name. Sometimes in these cases too, sources refuse and want to remain anonymous. It's up to the reporter to argue their point and get the name. If a source is not willing to stand by their statement should it really be given credence in the paper?
Bloggers can simply link directly to source material, for readers willing to surf around and take things as they find them- hopefully with a grain of salt. But reporters are supposed to actually gather their own info and make verified reports, right?

Posted by: Rebecca Padula | Apr 26, 2006 11:36:29 AM


Yeah, I'd want to get a source on the phone and have them elaborate on a point, but if what their saying online is fueling a particular debate, I'd want to quote that if it was relevant.

> If a source is not willing to stand by their statement should it really be given credence in the paper?

Here's my problem with this logic--if they're not willing to "stand by their statement," they should remove it from the public sphere.

If, when I call somebody, that person says, 'oh no, I've changed my mind,' then makes a statement online that they've changed their mind, I wouldn't use the original statement.

But if they're just looking to avoid publicity for an unpopular point of view, I probably wouldn't give them a pass.

My problem is mainly with people who are willing to attach their names to a controversial topic online, but don't want whatever's online to spill over into the offline world. I think people see some kind of barrier there that doesn't really exist. And I don't want to enable that dillusion.

Posted by: cresmer | Apr 26, 2006 12:44:57 PM

There does seem to be a disconnect between the "virtual world" of cyberspace and the real world. People don't have it all figured out yet about how the Internet fits in their lives.
Just look at today's NY Times article about teens posting to their dead friends myspace pages as though the dead have Internet access and are still reading from the great beyond.

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