Please Don't Quote Me: The Electronic Version
By Rosalind Resnick
Rosalind Resnick , a former Miami Herald reporter, publishes the online newsletter Interactive Publishing Alert.
These days, finding a knowledgable source to provide an eye-catching anecdote or pithy quote is as simple as browsing through the right computer bulletin board. Punch in a few keywords, follow some of the electronic mail between online users, and – voila – instant sound bites.
Just one catch: People who post electronic mail don't usually expect to see their messages in the morning paper. While legal experts say that notes left on bulletin boards where anyone can read them are probably fair game, the ethics involved are more complicated. Is E-mail private correspondence in all cases, or are messages posted in "public" areas no more private than statements made at a city council meeting?
Each of the nation's thousands of computer bulletin boards and dozens of online services has its own rules. The Prodigy online service allows journalists to quote from public messages without securing approval from those who posted them; the Well, a San Francisco board, prohibits reporters from republishing messages without permission.
The standards on the Internet, the ever-expanding computer network of computer networks, are less clear. In one incident last August, a Yale professor who had received a letter bomb sent an E-mail note to friends about the incident. The note later showed up in the Washington Post after being posted on an electronic mailing list where it could be read by as many as 20,000 people.
"I think of myself as a nice guy, but there were people who called me an online piranha," says science reporter John Schwartz, who wrote the Post story after trying unsuccessfully to contact the professor by phone and E-mail. He says the professor told him after the article appeared that he didn't think Schwartz had invaded his privacy because the letter had been so widely distributed.
ünother challenge for journalists is that the medium makes it difficult to determine if someone has truthfully identified himself. A recent New Yorker cartoon illustrated the point by depicting two canines at a computer. "On the Internet," says one, "nobody knows you're a dog."
When Dan Gillmor, the Detroit Free Press technology columnist, receives E-mail and can confirm the sender's identity, he says he has no problems quoting its contents. "That's just like an interview, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "But I've also done stories that used online postings not addressed to me. For example, when [the computer operating system] MS-DOS 6.0 was released I checked out the MS-DOS Forum on CompuServe to see if, as rumored, people were having serious data problems. I quoted from several postings, but didn't use the names of the writers. I tried to reach several people but didn't hear from them before deadline."
Recently, a journalist on the Internet proposed an ethics code that addresses quoting from electronic mail messages (see excerpts on page 13). The code would discourage reporters from quoting private individuals by name without at least attempting to contact them.
øut a few observers, such as Dan Hamilton, assistant systems operator of CompuServe's Journalism Forum, aren't convinced a code will help. Confirming quotes and identities with online sources, he says, simply should be considered good journalism.