This week Twitter got angry.
It was angry because BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg identified the father of a sick baby who confronted the prime minister as a political activist, embedding one of his tweets in her own.
Then it was angry because people were attacking a journalist for doing her job.
Somewhere between the heated accusations and counter-accusations, however, there was an important lesson to be learned — and a reasonable discussion to be had.
It is a lesson about understanding very different online cultures, about new journalistic practices, and an emerging dimension of journalistic ethics that few reporters have truly gotten to grips with.
The case for the defence
The backlash over the tweet — with the hashtag #SackLauraKuenssberg trending — moved the BBC News Press Team to issue a statement defending Laura’s reporting.
It highlighted that her ‘quote tweeting’ of Omar Salem was common practice, and the ‘absurdity’ of suggesting there was malicious intent.
The statement from the BBC was correct: quote-tweeting is commonplace.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s always the right editorial decision.
It’s not about the intent — it’s about the effect
Quote-tweeting is essentially a form of linking: a very effective and succinct way of attributing your source, showing evidence for a claim, and/or providing extra context to your reporting.
In terms of journalistic ethics, it is a practice that touches on issues of accountability, accuracy, and transparency.
But like most ethical dilemmas, other considerations can come into conflict with those. In particular: taste and decency, independence (potential endorsement; ceding control to sources who can delete elements from your reporting) and privacy.
The reactions to Kuenssberg’s tweet centre around an ethical tension between evidence and privacy.
Put simply: it’s not merely about the intent — it’s about the effect.
We are learning that the public/private distinction — or information “being in the public sphere” is not black-and-white; publicness is a sliding scale.
Salem’s Twitter account stats show the impact of a quote-tweet by a journalist vividly: his community of around 1,200 followers rapidly became an audience of over 16,000.
And those were just the people who decided they wanted to listen to what he had to say — the number of people tweeting at him exploded.
Put simply: the quote-tweet had a significant impact on his privacy.
The ethical question is: was that impact on privacy justified by the story? Was it the right editorial decision to make?
Where privacy is concerned, we might ask — as is so often the case with ethical dilemmas — is whether the same ends can be achieved through other, less harmful, means.
The culture of doxxing
Quote-tweeting serves both an informational purpose (you can see the proof) and a functional purpose (it makes it directly possible to engage in a variety of ways with the person being quoted, and their tweet).
Much of the anger over Kuenssberg’s tweet stemmed from a concern about its functional effect. Indeed, some clearly believed it was her only objective, especially when seen through the prism of the political culture of doxxing, or revealing a person’s private information to a wider audience.
“The ethics — and even the definition — of doxxing is murky. It is the dissemination of often publicly available information … Some at [a] protest asked, are you really doxxing a person if he or she is marching on a public street, face revealed and apparently proud? It is not as though they are hiding their identities.”
Kuenssberg and other political reporters may not be aware of doxxing culture — but they should be, and the debates surrounding it, because their own reporting is part of the political communication landscape across which it increasingly takes place.
This is because, aside from the functional impact of a quote-tweet, the choice of just four words — “This is him here” — opens up enormous potential for misunderstanding.
Whether you believe Kuenssberg was malicious or not is not the point — but there is a naivety, and a slapdash quality to her reporting here that can be learned from.
Journalists, after all, are told to take care over every word that they use, and here is a perfect example of why that is important.
There was a broader context to that tweet — but it was in previous tweets, which many Twitter users would not have seen. This is the challenge of iterative, atomised reporting: we may need to take greater care to ensure that context is retained in every tweet.
Can you achieve the same ends by other means?
So could the same ends — proving the assertion of the previous tweet — have been achieved through other, less harmful, means? Well, there are some options certainly.
For example, instead of quoting the tweet through Twitter itself, a reporter could embed a screenshot.
In this situation the informational aspect is identical, but the functional aspect is not: users cannot directly access the tweet and its author.
It is still made easier to find that person and their tweet, but some friction is introduced which makes it harder than it was.
This is the difference between accessibility and availability that Sophie Hood and Helen Nissenbaum talk about when it comes to court records in the US.
The reporter could make other editorial choices, of course. They could link to other sources which did not allow people to directly engage with the person in question (such as an official profile page or list of members).
And there is the non-transparency option: having already tweeted “Turns out the man who challenged the PM is also a Labour activist” the reporter can of course also choose not to provide proof at all, but to expect readers to trust them.
The reporter in that situation might then be open to criticism for going too far in another ethical direction, in not attributing the source of their information.
(And as if to prove how tangled this can all become, one of the criticisms of Kuenssberg was that she was not transparent about the source of the information being “the Downing Street spokesman previously known as Guido Fawkes”.)
You can read more about debates over the ethical use of social media updates in Anil Dash’s Medium post What Is Public, and Poynter’s article on the controversy surrounding the publication of tweets in a BuzzFeed story. BuzzFeed’s Ethics Guide now has a passage about this issue:
“We often embed Instagram images and tweets in news and entertainment. But in the case of sensitive subjects — sexual assault, LGBT, and racial oppression, for example — we should be aware of and respectful to the fact that many ostensibly public Twitter users consider themselves part of distinct communities. Outside of breaking news situations, writers are encouraged to contact Instagram and Twitter users when embedding a photo or a tweet on a sensitive subject. Contacting the user has the added benefit of giving the story more context for the reader. In cases where identifying the user is inappropriate but the content is still newsworthy, screenshots with the name and image blurred are fine.”