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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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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