Ethics Question: Should Facebook Posts Be Quoted Without Permission?

You know those really funny replies you leave beneath your friends Facebook posts?

You know the comments I’m talking about, the really snarky ones that have lots of “likes” and “LOLs”?

Those comments that show your friends you should really be working for The Daily Show, not some stuffy NPR outlet?

OK, maybe that’s just me. But how would you like to see any of the comments you leave on your friend’s Facebook page show up the next day on the front page of the newspaper, as a quote, attributed to you?

Two separate incidents not too long ago raised this question for me.

In the first incident, a woman on a Detroit area Facebook page created for local journalists asked what odd jobs people held before becoming journalists? (That assumes, of course, that journalism is not an odd job.)  Lots of folks chimed in with amusing career choices. I revealed my successful stints as a club DJ and a residential real estate photographer.

A participant on the page suggested it would be a great idea to compile this information for an amusing story about jobs local journalists had in the past. “Absolutely not!” was the rather unanimous refrain from the crowd. People were happy to share their embarrassing stories among friends and colleagues on the Facebook page, but didn’t want it available to everyone. (The article ended up not being written.)

The second incident did find people reading their own comments back to themselves in the newspaper. It began when a longtime spokesman of a medium-sized Midwestern city announced on his Facebook page that he had resigned.

As the hometown newspaper described it in print the next day, “Within minutes, he had a few dozen replies wishing him well, including several from current and former journalists he worked with during his spokesman years.”

The article then went on to quote the current and former journalists, not from interviews with those individuals, but just pulling their comments off the Facebook page.

The reporter did make it clear that the quotes came from a Facebook page, but I’m not aware that any of the quoted individuals were asked permission for their words to be used. Sure it’s legal, but I wondered if it was ethical?

I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t want all the things I’ve said on Facebook to be published next to my name in the paper. Some of the things I’ve written can only be understood in a context shared by people who know me well. Others comments are sarcastic or written to make people laugh. Do we now have to worry about being quasi-public figures whose every Facebook musing is possible news material?

I discussed this with some journalist friends and the opinions were divided.

One woman said (and yes, she was warned I would quote her) – “In my view, quoting a published comment (from Facebook) is no different than quoting an author or writer of prose, poetry and the like. We do THAT all the time, and rarely ask the author for their permission!”

Another reporter disagreed – “With very few exceptions, I do not believe Facebook pages should be used for quotes without confirming the source of the comment and the context. It’s so easy to hack, impersonate or assume someone's identity on Facebook that I just wouldn't trust an unverified quote. To me this would be similar to quoting the bumper stickers on someone's car - yes, it is public, but how do you know who put it there or why?”

One of the reporters who had his Facebook post published summed up the discussion well when he said, “It raises questions of privacy and courtesy, but the main problem is that it’s lazy.”