Growing Pains

This week, two of the subjects I follow most closely - sexual assault activism and critiques of the media - converged to create a tense (and intense) conversation about how the latter should approach the former, when Christine Fox (@steenfox) asked sexual assault victims to tweet what they were wearing when they were assaulted. A writer at BuzzFeed who has covered sexual assault extensively for the site put together a post using some of the tweets, and what ensued was what I hope will be the tumultuous beginning to a more nuanced conversation about journalism ethics regarding the use of comments on social media. 

Many responses to the situation focused on the point that Twitter is public, so those who participated in the "event" were not entitled to the privacy they later claimed.

As a feminist and a journalist, this has led to a lot of self-reflection for me over the last couple of days. So I'm going to mostly defer to this great piece by Kat Stoeffel for NY Magazine:

"[The BuzzFeed writer] was under no obligation to reach out to the people who participated in Fox’s conversation under public Twitter handles, some of whom were righteously proud to have been handed the BuzzFeed microphone. Still, none of that inoculates Testa or BuzzFeed or other purveyors of listicles from the critiques at hand: Posts like this amount to selling a recording of other people’s group therapy while sending a fire hose of potentially unfriendly attention in the general direction of its participants."

Stoeffel says this may represent an internet "growing pain." I would argue it also represents a growing pain in communications between journalists and their readers and subjects as those communications become easier and more frequent via social media.

We can preach about the laws and ethics we learn about in J School until we turn blue; that won't change the fact that someone felt victimized, and that approach can backfire. I know the importance of not letting your story get away from you or be controlled by a source, but I also know the importance of doing justice to the person who lived the story. And I think that means really telling a story, valuing context over speed, brevity or clicks. It also means that, as we become more immediately accountable for our work, "face-to-face" with our sources and readers online, we may need to find new ways to explain how and why we do what we do.