Internet startup AllThis drew fire recently after it was discovered (by writers like Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing) that the site scraped content (including profile photos) from the social media profiles of prominent tech pros and created profiles for them in its service.
The service seeks to sell ten-minute chunks of “time” with individuals that are bid on in an auction by other users. The implication is that the time of these experts is available for sale to the highest bidder (though they would have to claim their profiles in order for the transaction to actually take place). It’s tantamount to defamation for any tech writer considered to be a journalist who needs to appear to be impartial because it implies their attention (read: coverage) can be bought (David Pogue of the New York Times was disciplined for a similar practice – offering PR pros a chance to learn how to pitch him at a seminar).
Another implication nurtured by the way the company handled its launch is that these tech figures endorse the service … which is similarly problematic.
It’s pretty hard to imagine that AllThis didn’t intend for either of those implications to manifest, or that the structure of their service wouldn’t nurture them.
For its part, AllThis claims that it didn’t intend for either of those things to be the case and that the profiles were created when other users expressed interest in the time of the figures (who include some of my favorite tech figures like Tom Merritt and Leo Laporte). That isn’t necessarily problematic in and of itself – but the execution is where the problem lies.
As Joel Housman extensively documents on his blog – AllThis scraped his profile details and images (which is copyrighted content) and used that to sell its service. It’s the equivalent of me cutting-and-pasting content from someone else’s blog and hosting it on my site, siphoning away some of the traffic from their site to raise awareness of my own – only removing it when they object.
It will be interesting to watch this story to see if the adage “any press is good press” holds true for AllThis.
Muskegon Public Schools New Social Media Policy an Unenforceable Slap in the Face to Employees and Students
The Muskegon Chronicle (“Personal drinking photos could get teachers fired in Muskegon”) and Michigan Education Report (“More districts eye social media policies”) have reported that the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District has adopted an extraordinarily-restrictive new social media policy (available here courtesy of the Muskegon Chronicle).
The policy implies consequences (ie firing) if any content appears online that shows “use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are prohibited from doing” (students are prohibited from using profanity – so apparently if you tweet the F-bomb that can get you canned). The policy was crafted and adopted at the advice of at the advice of the MAISD legal counsel (which should be the first sign that the policy is problematic; lawyers and social media don’t mix).
Here are some specific problems with the policy (which is very reminiscent of the ban on contact that the Missouri Legislature just repealed):
1. We Don’t Control What is Posted Online Read more…
If Jack O’Dwyer’s journalistic credentials were ever in question before, let all doubt be removed with his recent flurry of scandal-mongering.
Responding to PRSA’s thorough documentation of O’Dwyer’s unethical behavior and rationale for his lack of press credentials at the latest PRSA International Conference, O’Dwyer has ramped up his campaign against the organization and is now incorporating students in the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA).
Unlike Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who have taken an objective approach to covering the US Government in their careers, Jack O’Dwyer is much more like Statler and Waldorf – the comical gadflies on the Muppets who criticize the performers no matter what they do.
It’$ All About the Benjamin$
The economic backbone of O’Dwyer’s operation is, like much of the traditional media, based on “eyeballs” (ie subscribers, traffic to his website, etc). In order for it to be financially-viable, O’Dwyer needs to be perceived as being an important figure in the public relations industry where his trade is plied, and to have attention-grabbing material to write about. Read more…
Recently Twitter facilitated a fascinating discussion of journalism, media, ethics, and social media in Grand Rapids after an article was published by Grand Rapids Press Reporter Rachael Recker about Grand Rapids’ flashmob empresario Rob Bliss‘ latest project that included a selection of tweets from local residents. I tried to aggregate the entirety of the original discussion that led to the tweets being included in the story here.
What seems to have happened is that dissatisfaction with how the tweets were presented morphed into a larger debate that centered on this question: What obligations (if any) do the news media have for using content from social media in their reporting? Secondarily, what balance do reporters strike between personal contact and professional contact (given that in most cases their social media presences used for work are also the same ones they use for their private lives)?
Paraphrasing the sides for this particular debate:
- The Quotee: The tweets occurred in a context that wasn’t represented in the story that was published and our views were misrepresented as a result.
- The Quoter: Content published via social media is fair game for reporting, and the tweeters were notified that the discussion would be part of an upcoming blog post. The context of the entire debate wasn’t necessary for the story.
I like everyone in this particular debate and I don’t think there was any malice or wrongdoing. On an academic level, however, I tend to agree with the Quotee side for a couple of reasons.
First, the tweets were part of a rather lengthy (for Twitter anyway) discussion and were selected in a fashion that cast the tweeters as being opposed to something (in this case, the next Rob Bliss flash mob event), when in fact there were ultimately a lot of positive comments for the event and Rob Bliss. There are a couple of bits of nuance that further complicate this story:
- The negative discussion (and certainly of some of the comments quoted – particularly those drawing a comparison between Bliss and Lady Gaga) was focused on the methods employed to promote the events (and their value to Grand Rapids, which is debatable). I feel that the full discussion should have been included, given that it was available and that digital publishing frees reporters from the concision necessary for print newspaper.
- There’s a a very vocal contingent of Rob Bliss Haters who have dogged him since he started organizing events in Grand Rapids. Unfortunately people who are not part of that contingent were forced into appearing to be part of that contingent by virtue of the comments that were selected for inclusion in the story.
Second, using the tweets involves a very murky area of the journalist/source relationship. The tweets were posted by the participants voluntarily, and the participation in a discussion with the reporter was voluntary. Being a public relations flack, I will always tell any client that no conversation with a reporter is “off the record.” As a professor and professional advisor for the Grand Valley State University Public Relations Student Society of America Chapter, I always tell job-seeking students that they need to be wary of anything they publish online because ultimately it can be public and can be viewed by people they will come into contact with throughout their lives. Caveat emptor, as they say.
To be fair to Rachael Recker – she did indeed post a tweet that noted she would be “addressing” the comments of the tweeters – however I don’t think that constitutes notification because there’s no implication that quotes would be used (more that she would have her own information or perspective to reply to the discussion).
What makes these areas murky is that Twitter conversations with reporters (at least for myself and the participants in this case) are both personal and professional. Discussions frequently take place that remain confined to Twitter or Facebook. Not everyone shares that view of the dual role, however. GR Press reporter Meegan Holland participated in the #pressdebate discussion as well, describing her standards for using content from sources which I thought were interesting:
“I always ask permission before using reader comments made in an email. But not for tweets, FB posts, story comments. #pressdebate [... when I inquired about the difference she responded ...] Because emails are one-on-one. Tweets, FB posts are public.”
She later noted:
“My Twitter relationships aren’t personal. They’re business! :)”
I noted that I thought this might surprise some of her Tweeps. I tend to believe that the spirit of the friend/follower is one that is similar to an email. Whether it’s right or wrong, people tend to assume that the discussions they have via social media are ‘private’ in the sense that they’re only of interest to the immediate participants and that they won’t go further than that.
Like I am inclined to do, I defer to scholars on the subject of journalistic ethics. The most comparable historical analog for public conversations in social media is overheard conversations in (a consideration raised by @jon_dunn and @jeffhillgr). In doing some information-gathering for this post, I ran across this excerpt from the book Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions which draws this same comparison:
“The real issue here involves what the journalist does with the overheard (or, in this case, overseen) conversations. Using them as leads, whether to a story idea or a source, is one thing. But if those conversations find their way into a reporter’s story without their author’s knowledge or consent, the ethical problems have multiplied. Both lurking and engaging other users in online conversation without letting others know that the journalist is there as a reporter – that is, intends ot use people’s comments in a story – are comparable to undercover reporting. The lack of disclosure means the journalist is using deceptive information-gathering practices; the deception involves hiding the journalist’s presence, intent, or both.
Such deception may sometimes be justified, just as it is offline. [...] The decision to lie demands a rational choice that weighs, among other things, potential good and potential harm, as well as a willingness to be publicly accountable for both the deception and the rationale for deceiving. Building on this framework, media ethicist Edmund Lambeth says deception in pursuit of a story may be permissive as a last resort, when the problem in question is significant, pervasive, and systemic, and when it demands an urgent solution that can be achieved only through media atention. That is a difficult bar to meet; in effect, it discourages the practice of deception unless there is a compelling public service need – and no other viable way to serve it. The vast majority of conversations among ordinary online users will fail to meet such a test.”
(Friend, C. and Singer, J. B. (2007). “Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions,” M.E. Sharpe., p. 87-89 [on-line] Accessed via Google Books 21, February, 2011)
Ultimately what would have been ideal is if the tweets were used to solicit comments for the story; that way everyone knows they’re going to be quoted and gives them the opportunity to frame their opinion as they see fit.
These are all fascinating issues – I hope we continue to debate them (particularly in the @journchat Twitter Chat).
People laud Bliss as a social media pro, but I don’t necessarily agree. To truly be effective with social media – it requires participation and engagement. Bliss primarily uses his social media presences in a one-way fashion to syndicate messages promoting and organizing his events. He didn’t, for example, weigh in on the discussion (which would be appropriate given his status as an advocate for flash mobs and his personal connection to the discussion).
[Updated] Check out this utterly crass and opportunistic ad that just appeared on Facebook featuring the mugshot photo of Jared Loughner pitching a message in support of gun control.
The ad is linked to the webpage of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a petition to implement gun control measures.
Apart from the vulture-like timing, there are at least a couple of things wrong with the ad (not the least of which is the reality that none of the measures proposed by MAIG would have stopped Loughner given that he legally-purchased his firearms from licensed vendors):
- It uses Jared Loughner’s image to endorse something without his permission. As near as I can remember, we’re still living in the United States where we afford the accused due process before they’re convicted. Talk about “poisoning the well.”
- Even the Dalai Llama would likely find it difficult to muster sympathy for Loughner, but the reality is in all liklihood he is severely mentally-ill. Exploiting the fearsome, contorted visage in his mug shot is nothing short of macabre and cruel (and ultimately contributes to the stigma that mental illness carries with it – making it less likely that others will seek treatment).
- As if reality weren’t scary/horrible enough, it also appears the MAIG doctored the photo of Loughner; cutting his head out of his mugshot photo and pasting it into a body wearing a hoodie and standing in front of a criminal line-up backdrop. I guess a suspected shooter in a white t-shirt isn’t menacing enough; he needs to be stereotyped by clothing as well?
In the communications field, it’s important to contextualize your message and relate it to current events. This, however, is a rather cynical and unethical application of those principles.
Shame on the MAIG for exploiting the tragedy to serve their political ends (after the nation has had a long, deliberate discussion about precisely how misguided that practice was immediately after the tragedy) and shame on Facebook for approving that ad for publication.
"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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