JAMIE NESBITT GOLDEN @thewayoftheid
MONIQUE JUDGE @thejournalista
It was just another day at the office for 25 year-old Twitter user @branfire when he logged onto his Twitter account one December morning to chat with friends and check on current events, part of a routine he’s had since college. When news of the Daniel Holtzclaw verdict hit his timeline, Branfire (who wishes to keep his real identity under wraps for now because of privacy) thought it would be the perfect time for a discussion on black men and rape culture.
“I wanted to point out the behavior that happens in our community,” he tells me during a 90-minute conversation a week after the incident. “And I wanted to talk about how we should unlearn these behaviors because they affect black women.”
Soon, he says, his tweets were being retweeted all everywhere, and caught the attention of New York Daily News reporter Candace Amos, a casual acquaintance Branfire had previously met in the comments section of a popular blog. Amos reached out to him for an interview. Before answering, he consulted a couple of trusted friends, who cautioned him against it. When he told Amos that he’d be willing to talk to her later, she told him that the story was going live soon and pushed for a quick phone interview. Branfire declined, and less than an hour later the story—constructed from his tweets and those of a few additional users—was published.
The backlash was swift, and came in waves.
Hip Hop Wired picked up the story, and the initial write-up was so brutal Branfire’s Twitter account became prime troll real estate. (By the time it was rewritten later that day, the damage had been done.) Most of the responses were harmless. Light mocking here, a few well-crafted homophobic digs there. Then came the threats, and the people sifting through years of tweets in search of any personal information he might’ve shared online. One person emailed the head of the black culture website project with whom he’s collaborating to inform them of his tweets.
“I didn’t know if I could tell her that she couldn’t use my tweets,” says Branfire. “I thought she was going to write her own story, not just use my tweets.” (Amos couldn’t be reached for comment.
Branfire’s experience marks a disturbing trend in the news industry in which speed takes precedence over good reporting. Every time this happens, so does the continued erosion of public trust. What could have been a thoughtfully provocative story about social media and rape culture turned into clumsy character assassination. By not treating her source with respect or care, Amos ruined any chance of Branfire reaching out for future stories.
The reporter, Candace Amos, couldn’t be reached for comment after repeated attempts to let her tell her side.
Nubyjas Wilborn, an east coast reporter who’s acquainted with Amos and a working journalist for 11 years, believes the incident could’ve been handled differently.
“I would’ve tried my best to get the other voice in Bran,” says Wilborn, whose resume includes Cleveland.com and Fox Sports South. “You want to give the other side a chance to reply. A fair chance.”
Meredith Clark, assistant professor at the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism, agrees that it could’ve been handled differently and noted that the tweets were used without Branfire’s permission, but still within Twitter’s TOS. “Failing to make that distinction is only telling half the story about where your information comes from,” she says via email.
Documenting everything, says Wilborn, is key. “If I felt I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do and I have enough proof, I’m running the story. But, I’m also okay with getting scooped, because I did it the right way.”
Frankenstein journalism, or piecing together content from curating tweets has become a more widely-used technique in online journalism; outlets from Buzzfeed to the Washington Post have employed this style to stay fresh and current. But, in their quest to do so, certain rules have been overlooked or dismissed altogether.
Take for example this 2013 article from The Guardian, in which reporter Ben Child assembled an entire article that included not one direct quote from an interviewed source, and instead relied heavily on quoted tweets from Twitter users, including Kristen McHugh, who says she never gave permission for her tweet to be used.
McHugh found the usage of her tweet to be problematic, because as she said, she is quoted as if she were interviewed, and she was not.
“There was no chance for me to express it in context as it was quoted in The Guardian,” McHugh says.
Indeed, simply randomly pulling tweets from timelines and pasting them into articles can lead to the original context of the tweet to be lost. That in and of itself is a form of harm that is most egregious, because it borders on misrepresenting what someone has said.
It is therefore very important to get permission and to allow sources the opportunity to explain themselves if we are going to use their tweets.
“Journalists consider that people who are tweeting are automatically on the record,” McHugh says. “They are not on the record with you just because they say something publicly.”
Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
This quote, pulled directly from the code of ethics of The Society of Professional Journalists, highlights exactly what journalists are not doing when they use tweets without permission.
If you don’t reach out to the “source” whose tweets you are using, they are, in fact, unable to give consent.
This should be an easy task to handle. If you found the timeline to cull the tweet from, you found a two-way communication tool with which to reach out to the tweet’s author and allow them a chance to clarify or explain their viewpoint.
“One thing that always gets left out is context,” Calvin Smith says.
He became the unwitting victim of Twitter backlash during the summer of 2012 when a tweet in which he made a joke about Olympic Gold-Medalist Gabby Douglass’ hair was shared in a Huffington Post article discussing the topic.
Smith replied to a comment made by another tweeter with the quip, “Doing her hair should be an Olympic sport.”
Both Smith’s tweet and that of the person he was replying to were embedded into the article, but Smith says he received a great deal of harassment.
Smith says he was joking in the tweet, but he learned that “people are very sensitive about their hair.”
Smith says the mob mentality that follows these types of incidents gets fueled by what he labels irresponsible journalism.
“I was just starting my career as a physician,” Smith says. “No one emailed me or asked for permission.”
Smith reached out to the journalist that wrote the article, but received no reply.
Smith was publicly shamed, and chose to leave Twitter on his own until the situation went away.
“I survived it,” Smith says.
Smith is concerned with what he considers to be the potential for situations like this to lead to Twitter users losing their jobs.
“In my line of work, I don’t my tweets to end up on Fox News, and then a patient sees it and thinks, ‘oh, I don’t want this doctor to treat me’,” Smith says.
As Douglass competed in this summer’s Olympics, talk once again returned to her hair, and many remembered the original conversations on the topic. This brought up a sore spot for Smith, who is still remorseful for the part that he played in the original discussion.
Smith has since permanently deleted his Twitter account, and has expressed a desire to never return to the medium again.
In addition to the numerous instances of journalists using tweets without permission, there is the special case of Nico Hines, a writer for The Daily Beast, who thought it would be a fun idea to create a fake Grindr account, solicit dates from gay Olympic athletes in Rio, and then write a story about the experience.
Hines outed several closeted athletes in his thinly veiled recounting of the events, and his irresponsible journalism caught the attention of other media outlets who called him out on his ethical lapse.
We have obviously reached a point when new rules for ethics in journalism have to be put in place. Journalists doing harm is a dangerous game, and social media has created a new playing field.
As far as Twitter is concerned, many are quick to point out that Twitter’s TOS allows for the use of tweets that have been published publicly.
While Twitter is public, its “Terms of Service creates a logical fallacy with regard to grabbing someone’s tweets and using them in a story,” says Clark.
Clark cautions that using tweets without having “vetted, verified, or otherwise authenticated” the information contained therein is a risk to credibility for journalists.
Clark also notes that journalists “have an ethical obligation to practice discretion in their sourcing practices.”
Wilborn agrees. “You want a well-sourced story. I don’t mind tweets as quotable as long as you can verify who said it. In order for legacy outlets to separate themselves, they have to take that extra step. Even if it means getting beat.”
“Just because you can see it and it’s there doesn’t mean you could or should use it,” adds Clark. “In doing so, we often take private citizens and thrust them into the vortex, making them a vortex public figure, often without their knowledge, and usually without their consent. Yet we offer no resources for consequences those individuals might face if their tweets had simply remained untouched. It’s an abuse of power in both access and amplification.”
Clark says that the old rules for journalism ethics no longer apply without modification and updating because we are using new technologies that have created new norms, and therefore demand new ethics.
“I honestly can’t think of any that are 100 percent getting this right. I see outlets across the board snatching and grabbing without respect to user safety and surveillance,” Clark says.
At what point will online media as a whole step up to help create the necessary change? How many more innocent people will have to have their lives disrupted for the sake of an easy quote and page views?
More importantly, how much longer will journalists participate in a practice that defies everything it means to be a real journalist?