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Opinion: July 2012

In the Heat of the Tweet: Defending Twitter
By John R. Quain
Journalists have responsibilities, even online

twitterWhere should we draw the line between censorship and protecting an individual's safety online?

This week Twitter shut down--and then later reinstated--a journalist's account after he posted the e-mail address of an NBCUniversal executive, Gary Zenkel, who has been responsible for the broadcaster's Olympics deals. The journalist, Guy Adams, works as a correspondent for The Independent, a U.K.-based newspaper. He argues that the ban amounted to censorship because he was being critical of NBC's Olympics coverage.

Ostensibly, Adams' Twitter account was revoked because he violated a clause of the company's user agreement that says, "You may not publish or post other people's private and confidential information." Worse though is that his posting was a serious breech of journalistic ethics. Those ethics dictate that we do not publish an individual's address or phone number (or a whole host of other information) because of the potential harm. (The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, for example, states, "Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.")

Of all people, journalists should understand how dangerous violating these ethics can be. Receiving personal threats and being subjected to stalking are unfortunately too common in our field. By publishing personal information, we are enabling such dangerous behavior--no matter what our claimed motives may be.

Adams and others have argued that the published e-mail was not private, but in fact public. The NBCUniversal exec's e-mail address was already available online. So there was no violation of Twitter's rules--or of any supposed ethics. Indeed, Twitter's own policy also states that, "If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy."

The trouble is that the difference between a public and private e-mail address is not clear. Just because I can find your e-mail address online doesn't automatically make it public. I can find your home address posted online, too, as well as your home phone number, the names of your children, and probably your social security number--but those facts don't mean that this information is now "public." It certainly doesn't justify me posting it all on Twitter.

More important, deciding whether or not information like this is public or private is not the journalist's call to make. One should contact the individual and ask permission. So by publishing a person's e-mail address in this fashion, the journalist is acting like a member of 4chan or Anonymous. It amounts to simple harassment--and there's no overriding public need involved in that.

Adams has pointed out that other people posted this information as well. Unfortunately, this is like a whiny child arguing with a parent that other people were taking cookies from the cookie jar, too. Why should I be punished and not them?

It is certainly true that there have been some egregious, unpunished cases of violations against Twitter's privacy policy--not to mention morally reprehensible messages and posts. Threats are common. Even celebrities have made huge missteps online. Spike Lee, for example, retweeted a private home address and put people in physical peril. (It was the wrong address, but his account is still active and he apologized for the posting.) However, just because one can't stop all bad behavior, it doesn't mean one should not stop any bad acts at all.

Obviously, Twitter is ill-equipped to deal with the issues that arise with this technology. Facebook and Google have similar problems attempting to moderate online postings, protect intellectual property, and individuals' safety. They clearly can't arbitrate each case; Adams points out the company did not contact him before severing his account.

The claim of censorship has also been imbued with a potential conflict of interest. NBC and Twitter are working together in a partnership whose exact terms are unclear. And attempts to get an official response from Twitter in time for this article were unsuccessful, as were those to reach NBCUniversal. But the claim that there's a conflict of interest here or that Twitter isn't being fair is irrelevant. Journalists should not post such information online--or in print for that matter.

The Twitter-Adams affair also has nothing to do with offering valid criticism. Matt Lauer and Bob Costas behaved like a pair of Fred Willard characters during the Olympics opening ceremony, even talking over the Arctic Monkeys' performance telling the audience how great the band sounded in rehearsal (too bad we couldn't hear it). But whinging about tape-delayed sporting events so that those of us who have to work during the day can see it in the evening doesn't excuse a journalist venting and posting an individual's e-mail online.

Perhaps it's not just journalists--or erstwhile journalists--who should follow such rules. It should be a reminder to all of us of the growing lack of respect for others and lack of civility that seems to be spiraling out of control thanks to social media. Just saying or doing anything you like online should not be the rule. Just as we try to teach our children about the dangers of cyberbullying and sexting, we should consider what we ourselves are doing on Twitter and elsewhere.

Certainly people make mistakes in the heat of the tweet. We all make mistakes. But once one realizes a mistake has been made, one should apologize. Unless you now have another motivation.

Some cynics have pointed out that all this hand-wringing has worked to give the British journalist more publicity. In other words, it's just another case of someone profiting from their misbehavior. I certainly hope that isn't the case here.

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