Posted in: Technology

Dealing with Dicey Content

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At one time or another, most bloggers are confronted with a story that challenges us in terms of whether to run it or not. If you’re a site editor, or have user generated content on your site, the issue can often arise after the content is published. It can happen to the best of us, for example coming home this morning after dropping my son off at school, I found Sarah Palin’s emails on the front page of The Inquisitr. How do you deal with such content, and what should be in your mix of considerations? Although I’ll be referencing the Palin post here, the points apply for any dicey content you may confront in the future.

Is it legal?

Breaking a big story often means receiving confidential and private material. Journalists have certain protections under law that protect sources, and allow them to publish items that are in the public interest, and some of those rights, depending on where you live, are extended to Bloggers. Copyright law allows for fair use in the United States, and yet we all know how lawyer and DMCA happy big businesses can be.

The question for me this morning for me was whether us including the screenshots of Sarah Palin’s emails where legal given they were originally illegally obtained, although we did not illegally obtain them. My call was one of fair use, in that we have captured images from another site that is publicly available. I’m not trying to hide behind fair use as a justification for running them, but seeing the same images on The Huffington Post, the Gawker Media blogs, and a range of other websites later on did back up the idea that use of these images constitute fair use, because that’s what sites with lawyers and more wisdom than I have decided.

If it turns out this call is wrong, I’ll revisit the issue, and pull them if required. The images published constitute a fair faith belief that they fall under fair use.

The Moral Dimension

Every time you write a post on nearly any topic, there’s someone on the receiving end of your words. If I write a negative review on a startup, there are people working for that startup who may not be happy. If it’s an exclusive and the angle is negative, there is always a victim.

Sarah Palin’s emails were private emails. Her privacy has been breached, and publishing them immediately takes on a moral dimension. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have published them, and JR has my 100% backing in making that call, because that’s what he’s paid to do. In retrospect, and after reading comments here and on FriendFeed, and after receiving some emails as well, I wouldn’t have published the post, nor perhaps would have JR, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. But there is another consideration

The Public Interest

How do you balance privacy and the public interest? Which way do we fall when the lines are blurred?

People deserve privacy and respect, but when you’re running for one of the highest offices in the land, you choose to expose yourself to public scrutiny. While I don’t condone the method used to access these emails, there is a public interest in the story once they were made freely available. For The Inquisitr, there was an obvious tech angle, and we’ve been covering more and more politics as the election gets closer, but only where it intersects with our tech or odd/ funny streams. There was a public interest in this case, and it’s a story I don’t regret us covering. The question though is whether the emails themselves were needed to cover the story. I made the call this morning that they were the foundation of our first post, and therefore couldn’t really be extracted. To get a better understanding of the situation, the emails themselves delivered a key aspect to the story. Second, although I know now that they could have been found elsewhere, I wasn’t aware of other sites hosting the emails at the time, and I knew Wikileaks was down at the time as well. Could we have swapped out the images for a link: possibly, but certainly not without knowing the other coverage first.

Reader Reaction

When publishing anything remotely dicey, you need to consider how your readers will react to the story. Sometimes you can get away with things, other times you can’t. Most readers will let a dicey post pass, but some can get upset.

I know talking to JR, and certainly from my own perspective in deciding to keep the post up that we didn’t expect as many negative reactions, although I did expect some. There has been some positives though, so it’s not all bad news.

Let me say that we humbly apologize to any readers who were upset by the post, and our decision to publish the emails. Knowing what we do know, the post wouldn’t have been published, but that’s hindsight for you. Although it’s not an excuse, we’re still fairly new at The Inquisitr, and sometimes we can get it wrong. We won’t be repeating the exercise, at least not intentionally, and can only learn from it.

Deleting the post

The obvious question having covered all those points is should you consider pulling a dicey post after it has gone live.

It is always an option, but after a post has been up for a significant length of time, any damage it has done will have already taken place. I’m also not a fan of deleting posts, and although it was an option this morning, it’s something I would have only done in extreme circumstances, such as there being a serious legal issue, or such a massive outcry that it shouldn’t remain up. Although there has been some strong negative reaction, I don’t believe at this stage that it warrants deleting the post. I may review that though going forward, and certainly the moment any legal aspect comes into play that strongly argues against the fair use aspect, it will be coming down.

I know some will judge me harshly for that, but it’s one of my rules: you don’t pull posts unless you absolutely have to. It also wasn’t my post (even if I edit this site), so I’d be more inclined to pull a post I had written than I would pull a post from one of our great team of writers. JR has my 100% support on the call, and retrospect isn’t going to change my stance on that. I remember having the odd post pulled by Arrington at TechCrunch, and I hated it, and I’ll be damned if I start doing it here.

Conclusion

Sometimes sh*t happens, and we all have to deal with it. Most decision making processes are best served through a logical path of considerations in coming to an informed decision. Obviously sometimes we need to make a call very quickly.

You can only learn from the hiccups along the way in the wonderful world of blogging. We will, and I hope that in sharing some of my thoughts on the topic, and the considerations in the mix, that you might learn a little from it as well, even if you wouldn’t have made the same calls as we did.

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Comments

5 Responses to “Dealing with Dicey Content”

  1. Tom

    Breaking the story? Fine. Posting the stolen content? Not an honorable thing to do. You should have asked yourself, could you report on this without the screenshots like many others have?

    If not you should take some very basic communication and journalism classes. Possibly an ethics class as well.

    Learn to to tell the story without perpetuating the original crime.

  2. Duncan Riley

    Tom, if you'd read the post, you'll see I made that call WITHOUT knowing the other sites had the emails. All I knew at 8:30 this morning my time was that Wikileaks was down, and we had the shots, and they were the core of the post, so I called it based on what I knew (ie, not pulling the post…it was already up). Had I known that they were splashed over other sites the decision process and the call may have been different.

  3. Jon Buscall

    Having grown up on a staple diet of British tabloid journalism I didn't blink an eyelid when I read the initial post.

    Perhaps my reaction (or lack or reaction) says something about how Web 2.0 is blurring the boundaries between PR, reporting and textual warfare ?

    I appreciated your frank reangling of the issue; the transparency you showed convinces me that The Inquisitr will remain a regular feature in my RSS newsreader.

    The web is full of mistakes waiting to happen. It's how we deal with them that builds or ruins our credibility.

  4. mollyfud

    I don't expect you to delete the post dude, but how about removing the screen shots of the Private email? Or better yet, often you use images that convey the idea of a story, so instead of Sarah's email, why not replace them with some of your own showing that private info had been put up?

    The real reason you don't want to get rid of it is that you see it as a way to drive traffic to the site. I hope this isn't right, but its the only logical conclusion. Prove me wrong, Duncan, Prove me wrong.