Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is A Tweet "Journalism"? (Media and Ethics)

25 years ago, preparing for his weekly Saturday radio address, the sound technicians asked President Ronald Reagan to do a “mike check” to get their sound levels right. The Great Communicator jokingly said “My fellow Americans: I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes”.

By Monday, most Americans knew about Reagan’s joke. The commies didn’t laugh.

A few days ago, President Obama was sitting down to do an interview with CNBC following his address to Wall Street, and as the techs were setting up for the broadcast, somebody in the gaggle of reporters surrounding the set asked him about Kanye West’s latest gaffe in interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, and the President said “He’s a jackass”.


Kinda like the time President Bush forgot the mikes were on when he identified a New York Times reporter covering a campaign event in 2000 and pointed him out to his running mate, Dick Cheney, calling the reporter an asshole. Or the time Tommy Thompson was up north, selling his plan to tax the Milwaukee metro area to pay for Miller Park, and he said “stick it to ‘em!”

Except President Obama is media-savvy enough to know that he’d gone too far with his comment, and immediately asked the reporters there to cut him a break and keep it quiet. However, failed ABC News former White House Correspondent Terry Moran, who is 48 years old, immediately put out a tweet with the quote. So did two other ABC employees. (CNBC has made no reference to the incident and has no plans to do so.)

When the boys in the expensive suits in the executive offices at ABC News found out about it (most of them probably had to ask what a tweet is), they had the tweets deleted and apologized to the White House. ABC News officially felt that the “rules” still apply concerning conversations that are overheard and under circumstances like this, where pre-interview chatter is considered “off the record”.

But the folks I call the “pointy heads” of Journalism, at the prestigious Poynter Institute, disagreed. Asked by an AP writer, a journalism ethics expert at Poynter, Kelly McBride, said if you’re sitting there with a microphone on, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and if you’re the President, you know that.

I practiced the craft of news reporting for 30 years, and I can’t count the times I’d be speaking with an “official” acquaintance in a social situation and if there was the slightest hint of “shop talk”, I’d be asked “am I talking to a friend, or the media?”. And there were just as many times, if not more, when I’d say “look, I just need to know more about this - is there anything you can tell me, off the record, not for attribution, on background only, that will help me understand this?”

President Reagan said “trust but verify”. Trust is what holds together relationships, contracts, and all sorts of things. I got a lot of information, and stories, from people who trusted that I would keep my word.

I’m not sure how that concept applies in a Twitter world. Pretty soon some lawyer is going to figure out that tweets can be considered “reporters work product”.

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