Jamee Greer, who works with the Montana Human Rights Network, put up an journalistically interesting post on his personal Facebook wall yesterday. In it, Greer says that a Missoulian guest columnist quoted him from a posting on his personal Facebook profile without directly contacting him.
(Beware, we are about to get into the deep meta-criticism world in which I discuss and quote things from Facebook in a post in which I discuss the appropriateness of quoting things from Facebook.)
The column in question was by writer and activist Dave Stalling, who wrote Aug. 14 about Joseph Baken, the young man who told police he was assaulted at a Missoula bar for being gay when in reality he hurt himself trying some flip stunt that wound up on YouTube (from multiple angles even).
In his column, Stalling writes:
Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network is right on when he says bias crimes are about more than just the person who is at the end of an assailant’s fist. “They are about all of us. They are about silencing us, about intimidating us – about sending a message that we are not welcome in our own communities,” he says. “They try to send the message that we are an ‘other’ wholly undeserving of not just basic legal protections like marriage rights or non-discrimination in the workplace – but not even the right to immediate personal safety and physical security for ourselves and those we love. They are about hate and fear and terrorism.”
The thing is, that quote comes from a posting Greer made Aug. 6 to his personal Facebook account.
Greer is one of the hundreds of people I happen to be friends with on Facebook, so I was able to verify this, just as I was able to see the initial exchange about Greer seeing his words quoted in the Missoulian column. Both postings are listed right now as being shared with “Jamee’s friends,” and not as a public post, so I will not provide links. I don’t know if that ever changed or if they were limited visibility posts the whole time.
About five hours after Greer made his initial post about the column quote, Stalling responded to Greer on Facebook to explain himself. Stalling said he had earlier quoted Greer’s Facebook postings in a blog post that Greer had “liked” and commented on, so he assumed it was OK to quote him in the column.
Greer wrote in his original post that the incident has made him paranoid about what he posts on the social network, and he writes in a comment later that he will be limiting some of his Facebook postings as a result.
Enough of the details. Let’s move on to the theoretical question at the heart of all this:
Is it appropriate for a journalist or columnist to quote from someone’s Facebook page?
What others say
In January, Vince Duffy of the Radio Television Digital News Association asked a similar question. He didn’t come to any conclusions, and the three (yes, only three) reporters he spoke to about it had mixed opinions — one of which was that it was “lazy” to quote social network profiles without contacting a source.
Poynter took up the matter of social network privacy in March. In her article, Nisha Chittal addresses both Twitter and Facebook, but we’ll leave the tweeting aside for now.
Chittal rightly notes that Facebook’s privacy settings are complicated. While it is possible to limit your postings to friends or subsets of friends, general users might not know that or might not even realize their posts are being sent out into the wider world labeled “public.”
The conclusion of Chittal’s column, however, is that it’s still up in the air. There are many useful things reporters can find out in public on Facebook and many things that can lead them on to good contacts with sources and more background information about someone based on their likes and connections.
But to actually quote from a publicly available Facebook page without contacting the person first… Well, that’s a choice that seems to be made on a case-by-case basis, and Chittal lists a series of questions writers can ask themselves before quoting such material.
How I see it
Yes, you can quote people directly from their social networking profiles. No, you don’t need to make an effort to reach them directly, though that might be better in many cases.
However, the postings you quote must be publicly visible.
(You used to be able to search public Facebook posts via YourOpenBook, but Wikipedia tells me the site was shut down in July for legal reasons. You can still limit search results inside Facebook to only public posts, though.)
Now, Greer’s postings are currently set to be visible only to his Facebook friends. I don’t believe a social network friend should take advantage of that relationship to quote things openly. In this particular case, Stalling should have spoken to Greer first.
Back to why I think it’s OK to quote from social media without contacting a person.
First, and call me cold-hearted, but if you haven’t managed to figure out the privacy settings in Facebook, you need to learn them.
Second, why would we necessarily give someone a chance to rephrase their wording for the media? If you see something interesting on a person’s Facebook profile and want to quote it but then you do decide to call the person first, what is he going to do? He’s going to reword himself, polish up the quote — make it media-pretty.
I suppose it’s up to the reporter to decide whether it’s OK for the source to present a media-savvy front or to be quoted in situ. If the quote is worth quoting and it’s public, I’d say go use it.
That’s not to say I think you should use Facebook posts lightly. In fact, I’d be inclined to use the postings only as a last resort, unless the quote itself is the impetus for the story. And if a newspaper is basing a story on a social media post, then it had better be a public figure flubbing up or a fluffy feature — both cases in which you’d contact the person involved for more information or a response.
Finally: Don’t post things on the Internet unless you want them to be public. No matter what security or privacy settings you have in place, you are transferring information to another computer on a worldwide network. Don’t expect privacy.
I’m going to pass the buck and say it’s got to be a case-by-case analysis. There’s no way to make a single rule for something this fluid.