Are Tweets and Likes on the Record?

In this post, Steven Roll, ASBPE past president looks at the growing trend of articles that include quotes taken from virtual social media venues such as Twitter and Facebook. Left unchecked, the practice increases the likelihood of producing inaccurate or incomplete stories, Roll says.

A well-known industry expert left a comment on a publication’s LinkedIn group grousing about a recent regulatory development that is likely to negatively affect her clients. Is her comment fair game for use as a quote in an article on the subject?

Perhaps. But if it were my publication, I would follow up on the comment by e-mailing or calling her.  I would want her to understand that her comment was going to be published in my publication. Reaching out to her would ensure that her remark wouldn’t be taken out of context. Plus, she would most likely elaborate on what she said.

But I’m not sure if some magazines or newspapers are being as careful as I would be.

When ASBPE past-president Paul Heney was laid off this summer from his position as editorial director of Hotel & Motel Management magazine as a result of a reorganization at Questex, Folio: wrote a story about it, which concluded with this:

Paul Heney, the title’s former editorial director, couldn’t be reached for comment but said over Twitter: “I’ve entered the realm of the jobless. If I have any disappointment, it’s for the way fellow co-workers were let go. Time 4 summer vacation.”

A few months later when Paul mentioned the Folio story to me after ASBPE’s national board meeting, he said he doubted that Folio: made much of an effort to reach him. “They’ve never had a problem finding me before,” he said.

It’s too bad that Folio: didn’t reach Paul because asking him to elaborate on his tweet would have most likely improved the story. It would have been interesting to know how Questex went about terminating his co-workers.

Even some of the most high impact news stories  now contain references to “tweets” from sources. A story that appeared in the New York Times this weekend about Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged gunman who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford story quoted some tweets made by a former high school classmate of Loughner. The article said:

“As I knew him he was left wing, quite liberal. & oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy,” the former classmate, Caitie Parker, wrote in a series of Twitter feeds Saturday. “I haven’t seen him since ’07 though. He became very reclusive.”

“He was a political radical & met Giffords once before in ’07, asked her a question & he told me she was ‘stupid & unintelligent,’ ” she wrote.

The fact that the quote was pulled from Twitter makes me wonder if she would have further elaborated if she was communicating via a medium that wasn’t limited to 140 characters.

A story in Sunday’s Washington Post made use of Facebook. An article about the dissatisfaction among University of Maryland Alumni with the school’s new Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson, for firing the school’s football coach Ralph Friedgen, noted:

There are two “Fire Kevin Anderson” pages on Facebook. Cindy Skiles, a 1985 Maryland graduate who annually donates at least $11,000 to the athletic department, is one of 101 people who “likes” one of the pages. Skiles, who felt the last few weeks have been “uncoordinated, unprofessional,” had high hopes for the hire when Anderson fired Friedgen.

Including tweets and Facebook “likes” or comments in news stories begs a number of questions. For instance, in the Washington Post story, did the donor make the “uncoordinated, unprofessional” comment to the reporter, or was this something she said on Facebook? If this quote was from Facebook  what was the context? Was it response to another comment?

To be sure, the things people say on social media outlets shouldn’t be ignored. But some type of guidance is needed to ensure that virtual interactions are sufficient to produce an accurate and complete story.

What’s your take on this issue?

5 thoughts on “Are Tweets and Likes on the Record?

  1. I think this practice is not only lazy reporting but unprofessional. Although I realize when I answer a question on LinkedIn or hit send on a Tweet that it’s part of my public persona, it in no way should imply that I’m OK with that being used as a quote from me on a subject I wasn’t specifically asked about in a publication. These sites do not have disclosure statements on them to alert you that your comments might be used for publication, and they should not be treated as if they are a press conference of sorts.

    A professional would follow up with the person and conduct an actual interview, in which the person was allowed to both decide whether or not he/she wanted to be interviewed on the subject and agree that the comments were “on the record.”

    Anything short of that is pure laziness and gives the profession a bad name.

    I’m not sure the Facebook issue is as applicable because from the paragraph quoted, it sounds like the writer was giving a full disclosure of how he/she found this source and that an interview was conducted and those were her remarks. I think that’s a legitimate use of social media as a reporting tool.

  2. Hi Steve:

    Wow . . . what a timely blog!! I’d appreciate your thoughts — as I think others would — on whether your caveat for checking accuracy of posted social media quotes also applies to content published on regular Web sites or extracted from newspaper articles.

    I habitually plead with editorial staffs not to run articles totally based on information published by other news media. Even if the original article attributes the information to the source, the author who does the excerpting is not off the hook if the material is inaccurate.

    My position takes an additional hard line regarding articles extracted from secondary sources. That is . . . when an article quotes a source that an editor ordinarily has access to, don’t settle for publishing the coverage in question. Forget about the attribution approach. Call the source directly; get your own story!!!

    Unfortunately, the typical response to that urging is something like “I hear you, but I just don’t have time to make the call.” And usually, that same individual continues down his or her usual path in terms of lifting with attribution but without fact-checking.

    What’s your view?

    Howard Rauch
    Editorial Solutions, Inc.

  3. I’m so glad to see this topic addressed here. As a long-time editor, writer and reporter, my views about sourcing and what is a public remark remain unchanged in the digital realm.

    Unless a commentator is speaking or writing in an officially “closed” environment, with documented rules banning the repetition of their thoughts, then their comments are public and on the record. No different than in the “real” world, where journalists, for example, may more easily obtain off-the-record interviews if they agree to conditions such as not quoting the information at all, or not quoting the source of the information provided off-the-record.

    It’s pretty obvious, at least to me, that when you tweet, post to a blog or a social network site, you have made a public comment.

    Whether or not publishing blogs or journalistic stories that include secondary sourcing is appropriate or lazy is another conversation altogether. (However, in general I don’t believe news stories, articles or blogs should hinge on unidentified or secondary sources).

  4. Steven,

    Good topic! I’ve wondered about this myself.

    While I think that social media comments are “on the record,” I’ve emailed people before using their comments in my blog.

  5. I agree with Gail that the “laziness” issue is a separate one. What I think is critical is whether or not the nature of the media is open to the public or closed. Twitter is open and thus it seems to me that anything Tweeted is fair game to report (though following up for more details is usually warranted). LinkedIn is a different issue. Information on LinkedIn groups is typically intended only for the members of that group. However, now that LinkedIn has begun offering “open” groups (where no invitation acceptance is required of the group manager), I would consider information in these groups to be “on the record.” Thus, the challenge for determining what’s fair to publish and what’s not only becomes greater.

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