Journalism, Social Media & Ethics – Part 1 (by Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge)

Written by

MONIQUE JUDGE @thejournalista

I decided at the age of 40 to return to school and pursue a degree in journalism. As a lover of the written word and a bonafide information nerd, pursuing my passion was the next logical step after being laid off from my corporate job.

I started at El Camino College and cut my teeth at The Union newspaper under the brilliant tutelage of Kate McLaughlin. From the first day of J1 and continuing over the course of my tenure there, the tenets of accuracy and ethics were drilled into my psyche, and they became rules for me to live by as a journalist.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics became embedded in my brain. I determined to live by these rules, and hold myself and my colleagues accountable for sticking to them.

When I left El Camino College and entered the Mass Communication and Media Studies program at the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, my understanding of the importance of these rules of journalism deepened as I gained an in depth education on the inner workings of media, and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

I began to pay close attention to the way legacy media told its stories. I shook my head at click-bait headlines that had nothing to do with actual journalism. I studied the influence of social media on legacy journalism, and the way that larger media outlets used social media both as a means of promotion and as a source for information.

I watched as social media users unwittingly became first the source for money making content and then later the target of it. I wondered to myself if there was a need for new journalism ethics rules in the age of social media.

This discussion moved onto the Twitter timeline when other users began to take notice that a lot of content on larger media sites had its genesis in the social media segment known as ‘Black Twitter.’ BuzzFeed, in particular, was called out numerous times for many labeled as idea theft and outright content stealing. Tweets were plucked directly from the timeline and turned into clever listicles that never gave credit to the original sources and left them open to harassment. This was a form of journalistic harm.

It may seem very innocuous, but the purloining of ideas for profit is an egregious form of journalistic harm that places no value on the thoughts, feelings, or needs of the original creator of the content. It is at the very least the laziest form or ‘journalism’ possible. In the broader scheme of things, it is a form of intellectual property theft and should be dealt with as such.

The argument has been made time and time again that anything published on a public Twitter timeline is ripe for the taking. The attitude is that if the person behind the tweets didn’t want their thoughts or ideas shared, they wouldn’t have put them on Twitter.

This is a lazy and harmful way of thinking. Makerbase Co-Founder and CEO Anil Dash made the following observation in his Medium essay, “What Is Public?”:

“It has so quickly become acceptable practice within mainstream web publishing companies to reuse people’s tweets as the substance of an article that special tools have sprung up to help them do so. But inside these newsrooms, there is no apparent debate over whether it’s any different to embed a tweet from the President of the United States or from a vulnerable young activist who might not have anticipated her words being attached to her real identity, where she can be targeted by anonymous harassers.”

The argument against journalists using tweets grew louder in March 2014 when BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa published an ‘article’ that consisted solely of carefully curated tweets from a Twitter conversation about sexual assault.

At the time, none of the people participating in the conversation started by Twitter user Steenfox had any idea their tweets would end up in the national spotlight, exploited for clicks by a large online media organization. Many were sharing stories they had not shared with their families or loved one, and had only done so because they considered the conversation to be safe.

Publishing those tweets exposed them to a great potential for harm. The dangerous and irresponsible journalism was only furthered when Kelly McBride of Poynter Institute published an opinion piece on the topic, and based her article on the her misunderstanding of Steenfox’s tweets. She exposed Steenfox to an even larger audience of trolls, and Steenfox was subsequently harassed and targeted for her thoughts on Twitter.

This type of harm is avoidable. It takes little effort to reach out to the author of a tweet and ask for permission to use their words and thoughts in a story. That this step is often skipped and then argued against when people protest having their tweets used shows just how far we have strayed from the ‘minimize harm’ portion of the journalism code of ethics.

What many of these journalists fail to grasp is that a person tweeting to a small audience may very well understand that the public tweets are subject to being shared and seen by a larger audience, but the type of exposure that comes when a larger media outlet shares your story in no way compares to 100 people on your timeline retweeting your tweet.

Consider the example of the infamous Zola, who took to Twitter to share a cautionary tale of hookers, strippers, pimps, mayhem, and murder.

After the story was retweeted hundreds of times, Zola deleted the tweets from her account, but not before they had been captured via screenshots and saved to various Imgur accounts.

When larger media outlets picked up the story, nearly none bothered to attempt to track down Zola or verify the facts of the story. Most simply provided cheeky, borderline insulting writeups, linking to screenshots others had posted.

Only WaPo’s Caitlin Dewey sought the facts behind the tale. She tracked down the parties involved, even finding others who had been in similar situations with Jess and ‘Z’, the latter turning out to be a real-life pimp currently facing charges of human trafficking, among other things.
Zola has become something of a cult hero, with movie directors contacting her about a possible dramatization of her story.

After a year of conversations surrounding journalists using tweets, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and I decided we would write about the topic to draw attention to it and elicit dialogue on the steps that could be taken to stop journalists from doing harm by using tweets. Whether that harm was simple intellectual property theft, or the exposure of a one out-of-context tweet to millions of readers who don’t have the full story before they attack, we felt the time to create new ethics in the age of social media had arrived. Little did we know that after publishing the first part of our essay series, we would also become victims of an unethical journalist.

Nearly two months after we wrote our first piece, and while we were in the midst of conducting interviews and research for part 2 of the series, a Frankensteined version of our article appeared in The Guardian, penned by Devon Maloney. Devon claims to have never seen our piece, and vehemently denied copying our work in replies to us on Twitter. Her Twitter denials have subsequently been deleted, but our screenshots are forever.

If Devon did not copy our work, a) why does her article follow our exact same thought process and use the exact same examples we did (including Zola, who never complained about her tweets being used), and why did she later delete her tweets denying using our article as the foundation for her ‘research’? Here again was another example of a journalist blatantly doing harm, and this time, it was harm done to her fellow journalists.

The last eight months have been full of repeated instances of journalists using tweets and causing harm. Jamie and I have been contacted by dozens of Twitter users alerting us to their stories. We’ve watched situations unfold on the timeline like social media nightmares. People have been trolled, harassed, and even doxxed because of the blatant irresponsibility of journalists and larger media outlets.

Just when we thought the lack of journalism ethics couldn’t get any lower, Nico Hines, in an effort to publish a page-view winning piece on The Daily Beast, created a fake account on Grindr (Hines is straight) and used it to bait unknowing and closeted Olympic athletes who he later outed in his article. The backlash for the article was widespread and swift, with many other media outlets calling for The Daily Beast to delete the article, which they subsequently did.

While it is admirable that other journalists called out this particular instance of bad behavior, the need for them to get involved in all types of journalistic harm still remains.

One point is clear: we have been right all along about the need for new ethics in journalism. We could cite a million examples of how journalists using tweets without permission is a bad idea, but that point has been made, at least from our end, already.

Now comes the work of figuring out how to create change in a journalism world that is already changing on its own (possibly for the worst) in the age of social media.

Monique and I have spent the better part of a year reaching out to people and industry professionals with the hope that there was a solution. The impression we get is that most outlets aren’t interested in one, that all’s fair in clicks and pageviews. In speaking with veteran journalists, some who preferred to be off-record, there was a sense of hopelessness and resignation about the future of the field. There’s immense pressure on journalists to not only be first, but to constantly provide fresh content that will guarantee site traffic. Some have had little choice but to resort to click-baiting readers. If there is to be a change in how journalists use social media, it will have to start with those wielding the most power: editorial management. It will be up to the editors to take a new approach to curating content in a more ethical way. If Buzzfeed can blur out the names and avatars of those tweeting hate speech, then the same courtesy can be extended to those who tweeting about feminism or rape culture.