Most journalists agree that Twitter is inherently public, and anything said on Twitter is generally fair game to be reported upon. This is evident with the rise in popularity of tools like Storify, which allows reporters to aggregate public tweets around a breaking news event or other story.
Public tweets seem to be fair game. That’s the point of Twitter, after all. Anything shared privately should require asking the person to go on record.
One professor, however, worries about the risk of bad journalism from pulling tweets out of context. Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editing fellow at Poynter, says:
If I’m going to quote someone, the smart journalistic thing to do is to be in touch with that person beyond what you pulled off that site. Journalists should let people know when they’re performing journalism. I also think that pulling something off a site without contacting [a] person further doesn’t allow the journalist to do deeper reporting or put the comment in context. It’s very easy to take just 140 characters out of context – and that’s bad journalism.
Facebook is a bit more tricky. Because its privacy options are so complicated, users don’t always realize their profile or comments are public. Banaszynski thinks:
If it’s a public fan page, I have no problem looking at that and pulling from that. But if it’s a post between friends, I would hope a good journalist would contact the person, verify their identity and let them know they are using that info.
Until standards are set across the industry, Poynter suggests considering the following questions when deciding what’s fair game to publish:
What was the author’s intent? If shared in a closed group or personal profile, was it intended to be kept private?
How did the source respond when you asked about including the information in a story?
Is the author a public figure? How public? There is a difference between a school principal and a professional athlete.
What harm could come to the individual if the information is made public? Is that harm justified by the public benefit of the information?
What alternatives do you have for getting similar information?