As more journalists rely on social media to find ideas and sources, there is increasing confusion about what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to using material not originally intended for publication.

Recently, a college journalism professor found himself in the spotlight after he included a student’s Facebook page among documents he brought into a class on public records. Deadspin linked to the Facebook page of a Packers fan who seemingly took her cheating boyfriend’s game tickets in revenge. (Her page was deleted shortly after the Deadspin article, possibly because of the unintended attention).

And last year, a Tampa woman tweeted details of her sexual assault, within minutes of the attack, leaving reporters wondering whether to identify her.

Are tweets and Facebook posts from ordinary citizens fair game for reporting if the writers didn’t intend for them to be public? What about private individuals who find themselves at the center of a news event?

Twitter as a public platform

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.

“I consider everything on Twitter fair game and as long as I am confident that the person and the avatar are one and the same, I use it comfortably,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr by email. “Twitter is a village common and everything said there, however considered or not, is public. If I think something needs context, I will report it out, but I assume that if someone is saying something on Twitter, they want it to be known.”

Reuters has a similar policy. “We link if possible and cite the source. If it is public, it is fair game. If it is private we would ask them to go on record,” said social media editor Anthony De Rosa in an email.

However, Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editing fellow at Poynter, suggested that even though Twitter is public, seeking permission to use tweets is key.

“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," Banaszynski said by phone. "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.”

Some celebrities and politicians use social media platforms, most commonly Twitter, because they expect to be quoted. In those cases, rather than simply being a mouthpiece for the individual, journalists also need to bring more reporting to the statement, to provide context and show motive.

Facebook, however, is a more complicated social network and a number of factors must be considered when taking material from an individual’s page.

Facebook can be private

While Facebook does offer privacy options for users, the complicated range of options for Facebook privacy settings also means that some users may not realize their page is public, or ever fathom a moment when something they post could be of interest to reporters. In these cases, some journalists make the case that public posts are fair game – but others disagree. Although a social media user may publish something that is technically “public,” that does not necessarily imply informed consent for that to be published in the media.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the hiring of Rachel Sterne as New York City’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer, and included several posts from her personal Facebook page in the story. The article cited posts Sterne’s friends had written on her page that were critical of her new boss, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s office responded: “Her personal Facebook page is for her and her friends.” Sterne also changed her profile settings to private after that, and the reporter in question could no longer view posts on her page.

Banaszynski noted the difference between sourcing from Facebook fan pages, personal Facebook profiles, and invite-only Facebook groups. Deciding whether to use material from areas of Facebook considered more private – and whether to seek permission to use said material – is usually made on a case by case basis.

“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,” Banaszynski said. In the aforementioned Wall Street Journal story, in her opinion, the reporter should have sought Sterne’s permission before quoting posts from her personal Facebook page.

De Rosa agreed. “We'd definitely be mindful if someone said something in our personal network that was meant to be in private,” De Rosa said. “This isn't yet a policy set in stone and I think it might be more of an individual journalist's protocol. Personally I would not share something in a private network without permission. We may look to have something formal in our rules for this in the future.”

Craig Kanalley, soon to be senior editor at the Huffington Post, emphasized the value of public Facebook posts in reporting but did not comment on the issue of quoting from personal Facebook pages or closed Facebook groups. “The amount of public posts on Facebook that can help us in our reporting is fantastic, and it's often easy to reach out to sources and get more information. You can also immediately learn much more about sources found on Facebook based on what information they share publicly, who they're connected to, and what they like,” Kanalley told me by email.

All of this begs the question: on Facebook, what is considered “private”? What is off limits for reporting? Are comments on a personal page, such as Sterne’s, considered private? Are comments within a closed Facebook group considered private? Or as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself has said, is privacy gone altogether?

Journalists are stepping into gray territory with no widely agreed-upon standards.

Between individual decisions and accepted practice

De Rosa told us that at Reuters, they “don’t currently have any specific guideline for sourcing from social media but I hope to have something formal put together soon.”

No hard-and-fast set of rules can encompass all the various scenarios that may occur – circumstances matter. For instance, Banaszynski said, “In breaking news, if you’re using Storify to display tweets about Whitney Houston’s death or a snowstorm or other developing story, I think it’s fair to use tweets that way … the circumstances really do change the situation. But if you have an opportunity to contact someone further, and give them the respect of letting them know you want to use their info, that’s just good journalism.”

As Facebook and Twitter become more integral to basic reporting, news organizations and social media editors need to consider what, if any, guidelines they will put in place for how their reporters source from social media; they will also need to discern what is public and what is private and off-the-record on Facebook.

Until those policies are established, here are some questions you can ask about what’s fair game in social media:

  • 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?