Anything you say may be taken down and quoted

Adam has an interesting post on the media's efforts to contact friends, family and survivors of the Virginia massacre [1]. BBC journo Robin Hamman then follows on with a personal account of the dilemmas of using the internet to contact students at the university. I'm not sure if this is definitely the first big scale event where journalists attempt to utilize first-hand blogger experiences but it certainly isn't the last, I'm sure.

Several months ago student Gavin Britton was found dead in Exeter after a night out. This was a big issue both locally and in Gavin's hometown, and it made a few lines in several national papers.

What was interesting was the speed with which several journalists found his Myspace site, then liberally lifted from both his profile and the tributes left by his friends [2].

For the journalist, such information must seem like a boon. It's a quick and easy way of getting what you need about the person and translating into copy.

Two aspects are striking here. The first is accuracy. I've always been taught, and held the view, that while the internet is an incredibly useful tool it's not particularly reliable or accurate and there's no substitute for verifying the information yourself.

As Chris White points out, there was considerable outrage from Gavin's friends after an article from the Basingstoke Gazette portrayed Gavin as a fast living, heavy drinking teenager. The comments, both on Myspace and the paper's website, suggest that Gavin was no difference than any other teenager. If the journalist had contacted one of Gavin's friends there were had been more balance in the article, I think.

This leads onto the second point. Given the large number of blogs online, it's almost inevitable journalists will pick up on some posts by those close to the action, as it were. In the past I've used technorati and delicious to pick up a couple of, admittedly small and localised, stories and have several blogs in my RSS feeds purely as story sources. It's something any web-savvy journalist should be doing.

But when it comes to contacting the bloggers, is there an etiquette or a 'right' way to go about things? Not all bloggers are media savvy and chances are many will be surprised a journalist's stumbled onto their site. It's often easy to forget what you post can, and often is, read by anyone. Your blog may, 99.9% of the time, be of interest or understood by close friends. But maybe there's one time you write about something of national interest and with the right words in the post, bam, suddenly it's top of the search engine hitlist.

Perhaps this isn't such an issue as long as the topic isn't an emotive one. Sadly, it all too often is.

With any death, be it Gavin's or the 32 students and staff at Virginia, feelings will be running high, emotions all over the place. The blogger may be writing as therapy, still coming to terms with his or her feelings when there's suddenly a whole host of very persistent journalists clamouring for an interview. It's probably not going to help that person's feelings.

The journalist, on the other hand, is just doing their job: trying to tell the news and get decent reaction or even knowledge from those on the ground. In the quest to be first, or to get that exclusive interview, occasionally humanity goes out the window.

But it's difficult to say exactly what, if any, is the best way to contact the blogger. I'd favour a private email, but even then how do you begin to write it so you don't sound like exactly all the other journalists? How do you convince the blogger your intentions are genuine, that you'll tell the story in a mature, sensible manner, without sensationalising it [3], that you're acting as the fourth estate and their story deserves a wider audience without sounding like, well, a complete arsehole?

There's no definite way, or right answer. But it would be better for all concerned if one was found. Livejournal, blogger, facebook and Myspace are just starting to become a key part of journalistic research. More bloggers or 'ordinary' members of the public will get contacted by journalists looking for a quote or further information.

The more often this happens, and the more often journalists either harass the blogger or lift words without permission or take them utterly out of context, the less likely the internet community is likely to co-operate in the future. There's a good chance that the media could well and truly shoot themselves in the foot and alienate a vast, intelligent resource in their desire to move the story on or find a new angle.

While, say Tim Worstall, probably wouldn't be too upset if a reporter contacted him out of the blue to do a quick piece on a unique bit of economic commentary he's done on government policy [4], a less high profile blogger isn't likely to react so favourably.

On a quick tangent, copyright would also seem to be an issue that's not been discussed. Sticking with Tim as our example, he uses a creative commons deed when it comes to his blog. I suspect the majority of bloggers haven't even thought about copyright [5] but as its up on the net anyway can access it, and very quickly utilise their Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V commands on their keyboards [6].

Copyright is one area of media law I'm not massively au fait with. Would a blogger, or even a Myspace user have any cause to recompense if a journalist lifted from their blog? In the case of the latter, would News International technically own the copyright? And would it even be worth their while to pursue the reporter, legally?

Robin writes about the ethical internal dilemma he faced contacting one of the students who'd written about the Virginia massacres. It's a dilemma many more journalists are going to be facing as the media continues to wake up to the power and breadth of blogging.

[1] Via Martin Stabe

[2] Journalists did something similar with the Myspace site of one of the people arrested, then later released over the Ipswich prostitute murders.

[3] It should be impossible to sensationalise such events, given that the basics are pretty darn sensational in the first place, but many media organisations still seem to manage it.

[4] Although I'd imagine he'd be pretty annoyed if his blog post was just lifted wholescale without any accreditation.

[5] Note to self: I really must get something similar for this blog. Not that for a moment I'd imagine anyone would be massively keen to publish my inane ramblings.

[6] And there's no doubt his goes on. Matt, who works in publishing, has told me about the time a manuscript carrying no small resemblance to a short story he'd posted online landed on his desk.