by Cathy Resmer
Just emerged from my deadline haze and saw this thought-provoking column from Ted Vaden, a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer. He dissects a variation of a privacy issue that I think about often — whether or not newspaper reporters should seek permission to reprint information people have posted in public forums online.
The topic came up after the RNO ran a story about a neighborhood organizing to oppose a nightclub.
Residents of a Raleigh neighborhood...were surprised to find themselves quoted in The News & Observerabout a local controversy. They had posted comments on a Yahoo groupsite for residents of the Fox Run neighborhood about a nearby nightclubthat neighbors complained was a public nuisance. The N&O quotedthree messages posted on the site with the authors' names attached. Onesaid, "we all need to push hard as we can, any way that we can to getthis place closed down for good."
Vaden essentially argues that this reporter should have called these residents and asked for their permission before putting their comments in the paper. But some of his colleagues disagree with him.
Dan Holly is editor of The North Raleigh News, which is the N&Osection in which the story appeared. He said he understood why thequoted residents might feel aggrieved at seeing their names in thepaper, but he thought their community site was fair game: "The messageboard was an accurate and honest way for us to get a sampling ofneighborhood opinion."
Holly also said, "When you have a groupthat is setting out to do something as bold as shutting down alegitimate business, it seems like getting your name in the paper issomething that is bound to happen."
I have a feeling that theresidents had no such expectation -- obviously, or they wouldn't havecalled to complain. I think we should have called the residents, for acouple of reasons.
First, a newspaper's first obligation isverification, and we couldn't have known for sure that the authors ofthe messages were who we said they were without checking with them.
Butbeyond that, newspapers don't normally quote people, especially thosenot savvy about media, without their knowledge. A good rule of thumb isif we can expect that, in most cases, people would be surprised to seetheir statements in the paper, we should check with them first.Sometimes that means we'll miss a juicy quote or even a story, but thenewspaper's reputation for fairness is more important.
I'm not sure how I feel about that.
I'm definitely in favor of contacting people to verify their identites, but I'm not sure it's being fair to let sources decide what I can and can't report about what's online. If it's available for anyone with an internet connection to see (those Yahoo groups only require users to sign up for a free Yahoo account), if you can link to it from a blog, if you can direct someone to find it, it's not private. Once the information is out there in a public online space, the person who posted the information is no longer the gatekeeper. Asking for permission to report a comment like that is like telling that person that yes, they can control who sees their comments, when in fact they can't.
I probably wouldn't have asked for permission to reprint those comments. I would probably have contacted the source and let them know that I was planning to use them. If they didn't want me to use them, they could delete them, thereby removing them from the public sphere.
I guess that's kind of a hard-line approach, but that's my gut reaction. It irks me when people post things online then want me to pretend like no one can see them. I feel like I'm validating their mistaken notions of online privacy. And it makes me feel like I'm conspiring with them somehow. That makes me feel dishonest, especially when the person in question is clearly seeking attention or organizing for a cause.
It's like they want to have their cake and eat it, too — they want to use the Internet for their purposes, but they don't want people who disagree with them to know about it. That doesn't seem right to me.
This is something I deal with more and more lately, so I'm curious to hear what people think. And keep in mind that my opinions are still evolving.