Editor overhears councilwoman’s phone conversation, tweets about it

Orange County Register | The Liberal OC | OC Weekly
While on a train Thursday, Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, realized he was sitting near Santa Ana City Council member Michele Martinez. He listened to her talk on the phone and then started tweeting what she said about her campaign. He also tweeted that he was “99 percent sure it was Michele Martinez.”

It turns out, it was. In an email statement, Martinez responded: “I don’t know what’s worse; someone secretly listening to a private conversation without consent or misrepresenting that conversation publicly. It’s disrespectful, dishonest and downright creepy.” Salladay tweeted in response: “There is nothing secret about an elected official talking loudly on a public train.”

Salladay told me via email that he heard from several people who supported his decision to tweet about the conversation, and that he didn’t think there was anything he needed to verify. “I was tweeting a snapshot in time of what she was saying; that’s how you use Twitter. I was just bringing people into my world,” he said, noting that California Watch may follow up on what Martinez said in the phone conversation.

The incident raises some important questions for journalists: If you overhear a local official say something in an informal setting, should you tweet about it? There are risks, of course, in doing so. When you tweet information you haven’t verified, the potential to spread misinformation that could affect the public becomes higher — especially if you don’t have context to support the tweets, and you’re not 100 percent sure that the person is who you think it is.

What’s your take? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Related: Should journalists confirm information before passing it along on Twitter?

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  • http://rtberner.blogspot.com/ R Thomas Berner

    Someone needs to question Martinez’s judgment, not Salladay’s. Talking on a cell on a crowded train! Dumb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.chmielewski1 Dan Chmielewski

    Actually, Salladay did confirm her identity with TheLiberalOC blog. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/editorialkarl Karl Gibson

    I agree. It’s a matter of editorial discretion and the senior editor here made an executive choice that I don’t know would be a staff reporter’s first allowable instinct. I once had the legal team of a Top #5 network series, who were in the throes of a terse cast contract renegotiation, and when they thought they’d muted their conference call spilled a host of conflicting cash figures and damaging comments about some of the talent. I transcribed it strictly as background information and forwarded to my editors as an off-the-record fyi. It was entertainment news, not politics, but it would have been disastrous had we run with it. I do think the moral here is to remember that phones and conference calls are like microphones to the world if you’re not exercising discretion. The guys at the checkout line blathering loudly about “NBC” or pseudo-deals want to be heard, however.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks Dani, and everyone else, for contributing to this discussion. You make a good point about greater reach calling for greater responsibility. And I agree that context is key — whether you’re writing a reported story or casually sending a tweet. Often, that context comes from reporting on the issue at hand.

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/KevHoffman Kevin Hoffman

    Listening to the call and taking notes, I believe, is fair game. However, instantly posting that information on Twitter is dangerous territory. First, he acknowledged the possibility it wasn’t her. Second, hearing one end of a phone conversation makes it difficult to put what you’re hearing into context. Lucky for him he might be correct, but it’s not something I would recommend making a habit. Just take the notes and follow up with it.

  • http://twitter.com/DaniFankhauser Dani Fankhauser

    I think this is a tough call. Journalists are always driven to investigate & of course are curious enough to listen to others’ conversations and further, are responsible to inform the public on what they know. But, a journalists’ Twitter account is a bullhorn — they enjoy greater distribution than the average person, and I think that calls for greater responsibility and some overheard convos should be posted but others cross the line. An overheard conversation is often taken out of context. 

  • Jim Thomsen

    Amen, Ed. I’ve been Facebooking the hilariously embarrassing and indiscreet things people say in coffee shops for a few years now. In the cell-phone era, circumspection and self-awareness seem to have gone completely out the window. Speaker beware. I’m listening. And sharing if it serves my comedic purposes.

  • Madeleine Leroux

    I don’t necessarily agree with tweeting or posting the information, but when the conversation is in a public place there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, as far as the law is concerned. The journalist can use the information as he or she sees fit at that point. I think it’s a personal call.

  • Ed Murrieta

    Last spring, I sat in a coffeehouse in Northern California listening to the publisher of an alt-weekly dress down the recently hired editor who had instantly abused and demoralized the staff. The laundry list included insulting the wife of a reporter at a party. I Facebooked what I heard. Talk in public is fair game. Want privacy, stay in your office. 

  • http://twitter.com/ericsandy Eric Sandy

    Yeeahh… This is bad news. I think it’s taking journalists’ newfound social media reach and going way over the line with it. If you’re eavesdropping on an elected official, great. Keep the tips and investigate as needed. Don’t tweet misrepresented phone call snippets….