How much is too much information? If it’s publicly available, does it matter where journalists get it from?

The ethics of pulling personal information from Facebook have been hashed out in a Twitter repartee between Sydney Morning Herald deputy editor Ben Cubby and some of his critics. He’s defended the use of social media in researching stories, after details pulled from a Facebook page featured in a story published on the SMH and Age websites were criticised for being intrusive.

Fairfax reporter Timna Jacks wrote an article yesterday about the directors of Carrspace, the marketing agency behind Woolworths’ upended “Fresh in our memories” Anzac promotion. The story opened with claims that the company had shut down its social media presence to protect its staff from dealing with a torrent of criticism. The article was supplemented by photos gleaned from Carrspace director Madeleine Preece’s personal (though publicly available) Facebook page. It also included the details that the two directors of the company had recently got married, bought a house and went on holiday in Europe and the United States. Jacks wrote:

“Images show the couple driving, camping with friends, and travelling in the United States and Europe.”

The sentences were critiqued on Twitter, with freelance reporter Mike Nicholson sceptical the highly personal details added to the quality of the story. Melbourne ad man Ben Birchall agreed, accusing Cubby of sounding like Oz media editor Sharri Markson (Markson is rumoured to have tabloid ink in her veins — it was meant as an insult).

Cubby demurred, writing that using Facebook to supplement reporting is “pretty standard these days: it’s what we do”. “Open Facebook pages are in the public domain,” he tweeted.

Cubby is unusually forthright on Twitter — he often gets into discussions about the ethics of his employer’s coverage. Speaking to Crikey this morning, he insisted his Twitter discourse wasn’t an argument about the story, which is how Crikey originally characterised it to him. Birchall, who is married to Crikey editor-in-chief Sophie Black, agreed, describing it to Crikey as “a spirited discussion with emoticons”.

Asked whether he stood by his comments, Cubby said he did. “I was talking about the concept of using social media in reporting of social media. I was asked about the concept, and I’m responding in those terms.

“The point I’m trying to make is that this is a legitimate zone of public debate, but in my view, social media is a legitimate way of putting information in the public domain …. While some might find that distasteful, they also benefit from finding out things about other people or organisations.”

By this morning, the contentious paragraph had been removed from the Fairfax story. Crikey asked why this was, and was told by BusinessDay editor Mathew Dunckley that “various versions of the Carrspace story have been published and Fairfax Media stands by all of them.”

“Fairfax Media regards photographs and posts on Facebook to be in the public domain,” he said.

As to the broader issue, the Twitter back-and-forth has been archived here.

Peter Fray

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