Journalism on Twitter

“‘Everyone on Twitter is talking about it’ is not the same as everyone talking about it” by Devon Maloney, The Guardian (Jan. 12, 2016).

This article discusses the ethics behind embedding unprotected tweets in news articles without the permission or knowledge of the Twitter user. It asks the question, “just because journalists can exercise that power, does that mean [they] ought to?”

The article cites the story of Aziah “Zola” King, a sex worker who shared a story of a falling-out between her and another woman, Jessica, on Twitter. The media picked up the 150+ tweets and began to embed them in their stories, using clickbait headlines (“Stop What You’re Doing and Read This Twitter Story Right Now”). While King didn’t mind the publicity, Jessica did, and it sparked a debate over embedding as an intellectual property issue.

It further explains that Twitter has a surprisingly limited reach in terms of other social media sites. LinkedIn draws more adult American users than Twitter, according to a Pew Research Center study cited by the article. The study also found that visitors to the “top three news websites” (330.6 million) is equivalent to the number of monthly Twitter users (320 million).

The article uses this data to claim that when journalists embed tweets into their news story, they are inadvertently give the tweet a much larger audience than originally ended by the Twitter user. It says that this would “increase the visibility and potential harassment of that person.” It further explains that in principle, this contradicts the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which encourages journalists to “minimize harm” and to “treat all sources…as human beings deserving of respect.” It ends by imploring journalists to not abuse their power online and to not skipthe steps they would take to give their sources the fairness and respect they deserve.

For me, this article was interesting because I’ve never considered the tweets to be “intellectual property.” Thinking about it now, it seems like common sense. I think its definitely a tricky situation, because while the tweets are someone’s property, they were originally publicly posted online in the first place. Twitter users could bypass this by turning their accounts private, but for public accounts, anything they say is automatically visible to the entire Twitter community. The point that the article was really trying to make was that when tweets are embedded in news stories on other websites, the tweets become visible to not just Twitter, but to a larger scale of internet users as well.

The SPJ Code of Ethics asks reporters to “minimize harm” by considering that legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish it. It also asks reporters to weigh the consequences of publishing personal information and to recognize that pursuing the news is not a license for undue intrusiveness.

It’s easy to say that since the information is available publicly online that media should have access to it, but will it minimize harm or will it expose the person to unwanted visibility and harassment?

Is accessing someone’s personal thoughts online really for the greater good?

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