Lessons learned from a Twitter storm

Poynter is a school. We teach journalists new and better ways of informing the public. And so it makes sense that I would share what I’ve learned from the recent Twitter uproar over a column I wrote last week.

First the background: Twitter user @steenfox started a powerful conversation last week when she asked her followers who had been sexually assaulted to share what they were wearing at the time they were attacked. After BuzzFeed posted this piece aggregating the responses from a few of the many women who responded, there was a discussion on Twitter questioning whether BuzzFeed violated the privacy expectations of the participants in the conversation.

I weighed in and supported BuzzFeed’s approach. I said the BuzzFeed reporter had been sensitive to the survivors by asking their permission to share their tweets. My column affirming BuzzFeed led to an even bigger storm on Twitter, including comments from @steenfox, who asked the original what-were-you-wearing question of her 17,000 followers.

In part, the anger at me started because of a factual mistake that we corrected the next day. But that storm grew over the weekend even after the correction.

As a journalist, I’ve learned some lessons that others might also benefit from:

    • Reach out vigorously. I should have tried harder to track @steenfox down. I tweeted at her once when my editor first suggested Thursday afternoon that I offer up my thoughts. When I couldn’t find an email for her, I should have kept tweeting. But I didn’t. I reached out once, then I wrote a short piece. We posted it that evening in hopes of catching the tail end of the discussion.
    • Correct errors quickly. When @steenfox contacted me Friday morning via email, she shared that she was also a sexual assault survivor and that if I looked through her prior timeline I would have seen that information. She also objected to our headline, which used the word “mad” near her photo, implying that she was the one who was mad. I knew immediately we could easily change the headline and photo and that I needed to write a correction, because I had implied that she was not a survivor. But because of a time zone difference and large periods of the day when I was offline, it took us all day Friday to hammer out the details of that correction. Knowing that I was going to be offline Friday, I should have asked someone else from Poynter to help connect with @steenfox when she was available, so we could get the correction up more quickly.
    • Being fast may close off journalistic opportunities to go indepth. In my eagerness to be part of the immediate conversation, I lost an opportunity to provide Poynter’s audience with deeper insights into a story often neglected by mainstream outlets. Sexual assault is too common and commonly misunderstood, in part because journalists struggle to document the true nature of the crimes.

@steenfox did something amazing last week when she asked her followers to share the details of what they were wearing. Twitter and other social media platforms give survivors space to connect and share their stories in a way that educates and informs. My primary goal is to help journalists find ways to amplify that experience so the broader population can understand the true damage of sexual assault and take steps to stop abusers.

Had I waited longer and forsaken the opportunity to weigh in on the conversation of the day, I might have found a better way to identify skills and techniques journalists need to tell this story.  And I could have done that in a way that @steenfox would have felt included and empowered, rather than silenced.

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  • castingstones2

    You need to look up revictimization and understand what Christine said was true.

  • Smores

    I am beyond disappointed with Poynter and Kelly McBride. Ms. McBride made ethical lapses that did real harm to Christine Fox, and her response is to write this obnoxious “teachable moment” article that spins her mistakes into an article about herself and her personal growth. If you do harm to someone else, an article about the lessons you learned should not be your first response. An apology and a good-faith, full-hearted effort to ameliorate the effects of those mistakes is. You should primarily be in contact with Samantha Fox, not Poynter readers!

    The phrase you’re looking for, McBride, is, “I’m sorry.” And how about, “I am going to use this as an opportunity to look closely at my own motivations and the morality of how I treat the people I use as sources”?

    I understand that your job is teaching, but what you’re teaching right now isn’t worth learning. It promulgates the ruthless, story-at-all-cost anti-ethics that make women, sexual-assault survivors and especially women of color mistrust and dislike the news media. You’re not doing any of us any favors.

  • http://thejournalista.com Monique Judge

    You know what bothers me about this post? You have now whittled Christine’s identity down to her Twitter handle. You have had so many opportunities to get this right, and you continue to squander them. This is not about you, Kelly. This is about the very real person that you helped do very real harm to, Christine Fox. Removing her name from your narrative does not erase her experience, yet it seems that is what you are trying to do.

    As someone very passionate about journalism and new media, I look to Poynter as a leading institution in the field I want to spend the rest of my life learning in. It’s disappointing that the lesson being taught right now is that ego is more important than ethic.

    I don’t think you’ve learned anything at all. Or if you have, the most important lesson has escaped you. What you’ve demonstrated is an ability to write what sounds like an honest reflection but is actually disingenuous, and an attempt to deflect.

  • Sarena Brown

    Chances are we “know” each other on Twitter. And maybe even “like” each other there. But I’ve been watching this storm brew as I have watched so many others brew – tempests in the teapot, many of them. And I guess I just had enough. (Also, I’m on sabbatical and I’m procrastinating.) But you’re not going to “find” me on twitter because I’m too smart to open myself up to the hate tweets I know Fox’s followers would throw my way. Not opening myself to that kind of harassment. I keep my head down on twitter.

    Fox keeps changing her goalposts and her story and her followers accept and support it all. That tells me she won’t be satisfied. A simple apology received would be followed by a “but how about…” unless her followers tire of this and move on to the next outrage.

    I think the conversation she started was excellent and amazing but it’s been entirely derailed by what seems to be her need to center the story entirely on herself (as the Root article did; as her constant comments with name and photo attached to the essays shows; by her changing her twitter name to her real name). It should have been centered on all the amazing people involved–including other WOC– who told their stories and were happy to have their stories shared with a wider audience. I think that’s more than unfortunate.

    And as your focus on race shows, and as the focus on Buzzfeed (white:bad) vs the outing of survivors on the Root (black:good) shows, many want to make this a black vs white thing. I’m sorry, I see that in a lot of cases, I see it every day in my real life, but I don’t see it here. As feminists we have a lot of real fighting to do. All I see happening here is shutting down dialogue and shutting down the opportunity to share stories to a wider audience and effect change.

    I’m done. Peace.

  • castingstones2

    “You don’t even know how to debate effectively.”

    Racism is real!

  • castingstones2

    “Do you really mean to suggest I sound too _educated_ to be black?”

    Wow. True colors shining thru…..

  • ceeza

    you are NOT listening and you are cherry picking.. It does not fit into your narrative.. ie privilege In the long run she did not have a problem with her tweets being used. She did however have a problem with her tweets being used without asking her permission first. What don’t you get? Ad you ignore the fact as pointed out above how Kelly forwarded her survivor story to another reporter. ethics? You also seem to have already decided in your head like you have with your narrative that an apology will not satisfy Mrs. Fox.. Why is that exactly? What is your agenda here?

  • Samantha Leigh

    she explained in her correction that Buzzfeed didn’t mention whether or not she was a survivor, and she mentioned that she didn’t bother to check the fact. (We at Poynter did not see @steenfox’s entire timeline before we published our story)

    McBride DID mean to imply that Fox wasn’t a survivor, she specifically wrote “@steenfox does not identify as a survivor” in the first story. Maybe you missed this story before she re worked it to look like less of an ass who needs to apologise.

    Her correction expands on the meaning behind several paragraphs in the previous story, but only after she had edited those paragraphs to make herself look better.

    The story McBride wrote is about whether websites/organisations etc need permission to re-publish publics tweets and who “owns” the idea behind twitter trends. Unfortunately, this isn’t the problem here and McBride is wilfully ignoring that fact and refusing to apologise for what she has actually done, which is use the image and name of a survivor to push her own agenda.

    I’m assuming she is refusing to apologise, it’s hard to tell because she has yet to admit she did anything wrong. This whole post reads more like she has figured out there are better ways to go about things, but still doesn’t admit any fault on her part.

  • Sarena Brown

    Christine Fox’s comment on the original Poynter piece:
    “Christine Fox Megan • 4 days ago
    Thank you , Megan. I’d also like to remind everyone reading this that the permission I was upset Testa didn’t get from me was to use my photograph, which is now plastered all over FB & showed up in my little brother’s news feed yesterday.”

    I don’t believe an apology would satisfy her. I don’t believe anything would satisfy her.

  • JNG

    “Also, she isn’t your lawyer or doctor or priest; you don’t have a confidential relationship with her; if she did in fact share your email with a colleague, what is unethical about that?”

    Sorry, this doesn’t wash. Any journalist worth a good damn would know to ask permission to cc another person on an email containing sensitive info. Not doing so can cost you a source. That’s basic Journalism 101.

  • ceeza

    “Sound too educated”? That’s the first thing think of when you read white privilege? LOL. Your privilege is showing AGAIN.. Like Kelly, you are talking but not listening. Women of color are marginalized by women like you and Kelly.. We know this but her piece and your posts are just more affirmation.

  • Sarena Brown

    (1) the piece you refer to was posted _after_ she posted her comment. She is changing the goal posts.
    (2)Testa did not lie; she stated clearly in the original piece that all the tweets BELOW Fox’s were being used with permission. Then she received Fox’s permission to use her tweet but blur her image, which she did. I don’t dispute that it would have been helpful if she’d gotten Fox’s permission first, but in the fast-paced world of online news (“news”) with everybody trying to be the first to publish, that just didn’t happen. Maybe Fox didn’t want to talk to the white lady at the white publication — I’ve seen tweets to that affect by her supporters — and wanted to hand it to the Root. Only public tweets weren’t hers to control (especially tweets by others). But it seems clear that she did not realize Fox was herself a survivor, and so using her tweet, image, name, etc., did not violate any journalistic standards regarding outing survivors. If all Fox wanted was “the respect and courtesy of being asked” then this controversy should have ended once she spoke with Testa and the Buzzfeed piece was reedited to accommdate her request regarding blurring the image. There was no need for this to blow up the way it has.
    (3) I don’t know what you mean by “disputed the tweets.” Do you mean to say she argued that they shouldn’t have been republished on Buzzfeed or showed concern for the other people who responded to her question and might be outed? Well, that is a revision of history, certainly. She may have written that in the piece you posted a link to, but that was not her primary concern, as she clarified in the comments section of the first Poynter essay. I didn’t see her say anything like that on twitter, nor has she said anything like that in any of her comments on Poynter. I did see her encourage the disparagement of those who did give permission as incapable of giving informed conseent. She didn’t care that she outed people in the Roots essay. I’m guessing because her main concern there was that the essay centered on her, her, her.
    (4) Yes, we know, Fox gave permission to the Root, You are not addressing the issue that the Root did not get apparently permission from the other women they outed in that piece.
    (5) I do not think you or most of the people supporting Fox actually understand the definition of ethics. You’re just fighting about hurt feelings, and in this case it seems to be only about the hurt feelings of one person not getting to have the story center entirely on her. I just realized she changed her twitter name from the Adele Dazeem made-up name used in the twitter “what I wore” thread to what is presumably her real name, Christine Fox. Interesting. Maybe that suggests she is enjoying this notoriety just a little bit?
    (5, really 6) Do you really mean to suggest I sound too _educated_ to be black? Oooookay. Kind of an ugly way to derail. I guess you’r just not prepared to face up to the misinformation you are shopping around. Am I right?

    Good luck & good night.

  • ceeza

    http://steenfox.tumblr.com/post/79733877138/why-kelly-mcbride-owes-me-an-apology she clearly says all she wants a simple sincere and genuine apology. “I’m sorry”.. But you are not listening, you are talking. Can we agree that an apology is not too much to ask for? And who are you? Why are you so defensive of these women who are clearly in the wrong? And why did you create you account just to comment on this story?

    and again stop saying it was just the picture.. you are lying..

  • ceeza

    1. I’d direct you to the piece I posted where she says otherwise..

    2. Fox didn’t have the chance to dispute her name or face being used.. Testa posted her piece before ever connecting with Fox. Testa LIED and said she had received permission from EVERYONE who’s tweets were embedded.. We know know this is not true.. do you dispute this? and you keep referring to point 1. when I’ve already shown you that she did dispute her tweets being used as well.. She wanted the respect and courtesy of being asked is all.. but you can keep ignoring Fox’s own words to fit your narrative if you like.. Kelly did the same thing.. ignored to fit a narrative that is..

    3. Again Stop saying that.. she did dispute the tweets and I have shown you in her own words..

    4. There was no contact before Testas piece was run. Just for comparison The Root piece there was contact. There were “ethics” shown there was the respect to dig deeper.. Kelly’s piece was filled with land mines of inaccuracy and spin throughout.. So much that she had to change the title and cut and paste entire paragraphs.. There was and continues to be a complete and utter lack of respect and contrition from Kelly before during and after the fact.. Still no apology.. Testa atleast showed remorse..

    5. Were not arguing what’s public vs private on social media. Testa didn’t have to get permission. we know this.. We’re talking about respect and what Kelly calls journalistic ethics, which she lacks..

    5. FYI Your tone and style drips of privilege.. Solidarity for white women tho.. Am I right?

  • Sarena Brown

    If McBride’s goal was to address “permission for what” it may have been due to your tweet (quoted in the first Poynter essay) stating that Testa had not gotten permission from you. Period. Not from you for your tweets or photos. Though as you explained in your comment on that essay, you were solely concerned with permission to use your image. So by McBride editing that sentence to “failing to get permission from her,” she is actually leaving open a more generous interpretation, to include permission for tweets, photo, name, etc., though you are the one who has changed the goalposts.

    Also, she isn’t your lawyer or doctor or priest; you don’t have a confidential relationship with her; if she did in fact share your email with a colleague, what is unethical about that?

    What are you looking for now? What would satisfy you?

  • Sarena Brown

    (1 As I said above, I referred anyone interested to Christine Fox’s comment on the original Poynter piece, here: “Christine Fox Megan • 4 days ago
    Thank you , Megan. I’d also like to remind everyone reading this that the permission I was upset Testa didn’t get from me was to use my photograph, which is now plastered all over FB & showed up in my little brother’s news feed yesterday.”

    (2) No one is disputing that Fox revealed that she was a survivor on Twitter (though even though I followed the thread from almost the beginning in real time I didn’t find out until it was posted by someone else on the other Poynter essay). I think it would have behooved Testa to dig a little deeper into Fox’s timeline to see the evidence, but there is simply no evidence that Testa had this information. But considering point 1, it is clear Fox’s concern was not with her being outed as a survivor, since she did not express opposition to her twitter name being used or her tweet being quoted; nor with anyone else’s being outed (see especially 3b below). This particular issue is really only related to McBride’s first essay and a misreading of what McBride was trying to say (which she later clarified).

    (3)Referring back to (1) in that Testa stated her only concern was her photo, not that she or other survivors were outed.
    (a)Other than Fox’s, *all* the other tweets published in the Buzzfeed piece were used with express permission.Some of those who gave permission later retracted it or asked that names/images be blurred. Those requests were granted. One (if not more) tweets were added after publication, by people who gave Testa permission. A simple search will find support for all of this.
    (b) Just for comparison’s sake: Fox gave an interview to the Root and allowed them to quote her, use her image, etc., and the Root quoted tweets without identifying marks, yet used tweets with names and images of women who weren’t responding to Fox’s original question but were tweeting support and making it clear that they too were survivors. It was not noted anywhere on the Root piece that permission had been sought from those women. Any tweet on this thread would easily be traced using Fox’s name alone, outing everyone involved.
    (c) Once a tweet is out there, anyone can follow the thread it was on and read tweets made by people who don’t want it retweeted or read by anyone they don’t know or republished on an online forum. That is the nature of setting your account to public.

    So all of this hullaboo over one person’s not wanting her image used while she continuously posts that same image publicly all over twitter and these comments pages and every other essay that wrote about the thread or the controversy. Wow. And not a care in the world that the women who did give permission are being disrespected.

  • Christine Fox

    One other thing you forgot to mention…you added ENTIRE paragraphs & words & omitted words from the original post while keeping the same narrative & made no reference ANYWHERE to the numerous changes in the body of the post & the title. For example, in paragraph 3, you changed “for failing to get her permission to use the tweets” to “for failing to get permission from her.” You missed a great opportunity to say “for failing to get permission to use HER tweets/photo” but that would’ve changed your entire spin. Your main goal from the beginning was to spin the story around “permission for what?” Also, I made contact with you on Thursday evening via Twitter when I first became aware of this story (I was being harassed by someone who had read it & I found the link on his timeline) & I told you every single point that needed to be corrected. My email to you on Friday morning was reiterating what I’d already told you.

    You still haven’t apologized for copying one of your colleagues on my email that included my detailed account of my assault that I told you I’d never shared with anyone before. #ethics

  • Christine Fox

    Still waiting for “I’m sorry.”

  • ceeza

    you are SO misinformed http://steenfox.tumblr.com/post/79733877138/why-kelly-mcbride-owes-me-an-apology here’s where she says her tweets AND picture were the problem.. don’t know where you got the “soley” from.. that’s a lie. and here’s where she discusses her survivor status.. her very first tweet was “heels, tank top, jeans he put something in my drink..I was there alone” http://www.xojane.com/issues/i-am-steenfox-and-i-wrote-the-tweet-what-were-you-wearing and there were tweeters that didn’t give permission who’s faces were later blurred and or cut from the piece.. these women didn’t do there due diligence and caused a lot of pain.. you haven’t done your homework either.. you sound ridiculous..

  • Sarena Brown

    Hey, we finally agree on something. At least in essence. Because I am sure you and I wouldn’t agree on who the people not trying to do the right thing are.

  • Sarena Brown

    You are aware that steenfox herself has stated very clearly in the comments section on the previous ethics post that her argument with Testa was SOLELY about the use of her image? That’s it: her image. Please stop changing the goal posts to fuel your outrage. Considering Testa asked permission to republish all the tweets from the people who identified themselves in those tweets as survivors, I think it is fair to say there is no reason to believe Testa knew of steenfox’s status. If she had, it seems very likely that the workaround for her article would have been not to quote steenfox’s question and to blur her twitter name from the other tweets in the article. And then perhaps the outrage would be over the erasure of steenfox as the originator of the thread. I know from all of your other comments that you really want to believe that those other tweeters didn’t really give Testa permission, that they were naive and somehow led astray and fooled, but I give them more credit than that and find the suggestion that they weren’t competent to give consent very disturbing. Because you have no proof otherwise, I suggest you abandon that line of argument because it’s getting you nowhere.

  • castingstones2

    We can read what she said. Testa didn’t reveal her survivor status? Do you really hear the words you say. Testa was in the wrong for publishing a picture of a survivor of sexual abuse without her permission. No amount of gaslighting will change reality.

  • castingstones2

    Afflict the comfortable quote… they sure do teach it, applying it, that takes seeing others as worthy of value.

  • castingstones2

    Yet she is a survivor nonetheless who didn’t give her permission to use a blow up size of her picture. Testa shows she doesn’t care about ethics or have compassion for survivors of sexual abuse unless they can give her clicks.

  • castingstones2

    Everybody wasn’t trying to do the right thing. You can keep that.

  • Sarena Brown

    She explained in the correction on her previous piece that she simply meant that steenfox was not outed in the Buzzfeed piece as a survivor. I think it’s an important distinction, that Testa did not reveal steenfox’s survivor status, because she wouldn’t have done that without first getting steenfox’s permission. McBride did not mean that steenfox wasn’t or didn’t identify as a survivor in general. She was not dismissing steenfox’s status and it seems unfortunate that you (and others) are misreading this.

    I also continue to think it outrageous that so many of steenfox’s followers feel it is perfectly okay to reveal her status. It seems only she should address this particular personal issue.

  • Sarena Brown

    This is a thoughtful, gracious response. I agree that slowing down the news cycle may have allowed some issues to be avoided, but who are we kidding – the news cycle just keeps getting faster and faster. The controversy started with and has been primarily focused on steenfox and her request that Buzzfeed not use her (public) twitter photo– though her having given permission to other media outlets to use it to cover the same story and her continuing to post it and her name all over the internet suggests strongly that this controversy should be, by now, considered moot.

    Instead, I think ultimately the issues are – who controls the news and public information and what are the ethics of social media, from the perspective of both general users and journalists. Publishing (or retweeting) any tweet, with or without the original poster’s permission, opens the door to an easy search to find every other tweet associated with that thread, whether or not other posters want their associated tweets to be found. Twitter thrives on retweeted tweets; media mines Twitter for thoughtful or funny (or stupid) responses to various subjects. When the tweet refers to a personal experience of rape or sexual assault, are the rules different than when the tweet is a humorous reaction to a Scandal episode? Should we still be promoting the redaction of the names of adults who have been raped or sexually assaulted, or is that ultimately a kowtowing to the vicious circle of rape culture, which at one and the same time would have us believe there is no such thing as a rape epidemic while also demanding that people who have been raped should feel disabling shame and keep silent and hidden, which prevents many from understanding that there is actually an epidemic of rape?

    Having followed all of this very closely, I find it disheartening that instead of taking the opportunity to have a serious, thoughtful, honest discussion with first the Buzzfeed author and then with you, steenfox and others have instead chosen to spread false information, shame those who chose to proudly share their stories with the Buzzfeed audience, and change the goalpost anytime their demands have been satisfied. I keep seeing this same pattern over and over in Twitter wars and have no faith that it will change as long as people refuse to accept that (1) they ultimately have no control over their public twitter feeds and no law is going to be passed to change that (no matter how many petitions they sign) and (2) when there is the opportunity to engage with journalists like you and Jessica Testa, the best approach is with honesty and sincerity, always with the expectation (even if not always met) that the person they are interacting with is trying to do the right thing. Only after they’ve tried the sincere approach should other tactics be tried to get attention for the problem. Sadly, I won’t be holding my breath for this, because outrage apparently is infectious and at least temporarily more satisfying than sincere dialogue.

    Thank you.

  • Alexandra Erin

    You have learned nothing. You are not acknowledging your primary mistake, which is that your article is founded on a faulty premise. “Because you pose a question that provokes an interesting answer, does that give an ethical claim to control the story that emerges?” is still the question that leads into your argument, which makes it sound like @steenfox was demanding people ask permission before talking about her experiment, which is not and never has been the case. You say, “But that raises a question: Permission for what?”

    No, it doesn’t. There’s no question there. Her complaint was that Testa didn’t ask her permission for the same things that everybody else had permission asked: the use of her name, likeness, and tweets in the story.

    How do you still not get this, so many days later? How are you still missing this? Have you made a commitment to ignorance? Do you not like the idea that the journalist was wholly in the wrong and @steenfox was wholly wronged? Does this upset your preferred narrative? Do you think it would reflect poorly on you and Poynter to admit that the article in its entirety is deeply flawed rather than compromising on admitting a few “corrections” with no apology?

    Get better. What are you supposed to teach the world’s next generation of journalists, Kelly McBride? Is “ethics” just another word for “ass covering” to you? Is your moral lesson “admit nothing and don’t get caught” rather than “do the right thing”?

    Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Do they not teach that at Poynter? How about truth? Is there any room in your ethics for truth?

    Get better.

  • Samantha Leigh

    “when we said that @steenfox did not state that she was a survivor, we were referring only to one specific tweet” and “@steenfox didn’t identify herself as a survivor in two tweets”

    How much information do you expect people to fit into a tweet?

    Just for future reference I want to know that when you say somebody “does not identify as a survivor” you actually mean that in 140 characters, while asking other people a question, that person couldn’t fit in a full bio as well and you took that as permission to lie about them.

    Maybe you should write up a protocol about what exactly we should fit into each of our tweets so that ethical journalists, like yourself, don’t assume things based off 140 characters in the future.

  • ceeza

    Is simply saying I’m sorry really this hard for you? I kept waiting to read those words but nope. Apologizing is strength not weakness. Where is your compassion, remorse and feeling towards the person you hurt? You learned nothing if those words were not included in your piece. Unbelievable.

  • castingstones2

    This affected her. You revictimized her and others reminding them of the times they were silenced the their abusers believed.

  • ProducerMatthew

    Note that, though there was an admission of wrongdoing and a rush to judgment, there is no apology offered here.

    “In part, the anger at me started because of a factual mistake that we corrected the next day. But that storm grew over the weekend even after the correction.”

    A correction is not an apology.