On Facebook and mea culpas

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Notes from the news desk. File photo. Notes from the news desk. File photo.

Usually, the best way to correct a misstep is to talk about it. We found ourself in that position last week, so we’re here to start a conversation—and eat a little crow.

Last week’s story on a dispute over permitted partying in the Market and Meade area included some quotes that it shouldn’t have, quotes that, it turned out, were taken from a private Facebook page.
Our unwritten rule has been to use input from Facebook only if the post is publicly viewable, i.e., only if it’s visible without having to “friend” the person first. And that’s pretty standard for news outlets these days.
But on a busy deadline day, when we were short one news team member, we made a bad call. We saw the posts we ran with only as screen shots, and thought they were public. The poster explained that they weren’t. They were written with privacy settings adjusted so only friends could see them, and they were taken down not long after they went up.
The poster, Victoria Dunham, was understandably upset—I, too, am very careful about social media, especially what’s visible to whom on my Facebook page—and she called us. We had a good conversation about it, talked about the value of revisiting the issue, and decided we should—for several reasons. Chief among them is simply setting the record straight, and letting Victoria respond in her own words, which should have happened before. Here are her thoughts.
“When I contacted Graelyn Brashear regarding the Moto story, I had two major concerns. First, to set the record straight regarding my Facebook comments and the strange journey they took on their way into the media. Second, this: Before a story in our local media reaches the public’s eyes, we need to know that all facts have been checked, and reporters and editors have performed their due diligence. I was personally disappointed and upset regarding the events that had transpired prior to getting this story to press,  and saddened for the general public. The media shouldn’t print anything that’s been thrown over their transom unless those items can be verified first.  In this particular case, verification didn’t happen.To set the story straight, here’s a brief timeline of the events. A neighbor, then a Facebook friend, grabbed screen captures of some comments I had made over the course of a conversation with others. He then cropped and edited the comments, removing the original context and his own angry commentary, and sent the new (his) version to two members of my board and Matteus Frankovich. He included spin on both the meaning of the comments and whom he felt were the intended targets. Shortly thereafter, one of the recipients then sent the edited comments to the C-VILLE Weekly and Hook, along with additional spin.

“After the neighbor’s outburst on my page, I deleted the post entirely. The post was up for fewer than 2 hours and seen by a limited number of my friends. In printing it, however, this brief blip in time has now become immortal via the marvel of internet searching. The fact that the intent of the neighbor and sender was to harm, has only made matters worse.

“As WMNA president over the past years, I’ve been an unpaid volunteer.  I’m not rather than an elected official or a public figure.  When I took the position, I didn’t agree to give up my privacy. The Woolen Mills has faced many challenges through the years, some of them quite serious. We’ve met them head on and have succeeded for the most part.  My recent resignation as president was primarily driven by my work schedule and resulting lack of time for volunteer activities. My decision to resign preceded the media stories and they did not factor into that process. I’ve been disheartened that the most disputed issue in the Woolen Mills is a nightclub zoning variance rather than increased transit, cut-through traffic, or affordable housing.

“From the moment I contacted Ms Brashear, she has been professional, responsive, and considerate.  In making this an open and transparent conversation, it’s obvious to me that she feels a high degree of responsibility towards her readers as well as the public. The C-VILLE Weekly editorial staff could have chosen to act defensively and circle their wagons. They didn’t, and for that they have earned my respect.”

This is also a good opportunity for us to explore how we use social media, and what’s OK and what isn’t. We realized we needed a stated set of rules: Before quoting somebody’s comment or post, confirm it’s a public statement with our own eyes, give the poster a fair chance to respond, and then use it only if it contributes something significant to the story that we couldn’t get elsewhere.
But the discussion can’t really end there. The way people—reporters, editors, readers—use social media is always shifting and evolving. Ten years ago, Facebook didn’t even exist. Who knows where we’ll be in another decade. Point is, it’s something we should talk about, and often. Would you be upset to see a news outlet take a public comment you made on Facebook and use it in a story? In my last job as a web reporter and editor, I once used a photo and a comment from an 18-year-old convicted arsonist’s Facebook page when I couldn’t reach him any other way, or get a mugshot. Was that an overstep? (His family and friends sure thought so, and I can tell you they weren’t nearly as gracious about it as Victoria was.)
What do you think?
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