Bad Journalism, Or A Reason Not To Have Private Conversations In Public?
Should journalists report things they happen to overhear in a public place?
Mallary Jean Tenore writes about an interesting journalistic dilemma that has developed in Orange County, California:
While on a train Thursday, Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, realized he was sitting near Santa Ana City Council member Michele Martinez. He listened to her talk on the phone and then started tweeting what she said about her campaign. He also tweeted that he was “99 percent sure it was Michele Martinez.”
It turns out, it was. In an email statement, Martinez responded: “I don’t know what’s worse; someone secretly listening to a private conversation without consent or misrepresenting that conversation publicly. It’s disrespectful, dishonest and downright creepy.” Salladay tweeted in response: “There is nothing secret about an elected official talking loudly on a public train.”
Salladay told me via email that he heard from several people who supported his decision to tweet about the conversation, and that he didn’t think there was anything he needed to verify. “I was tweeting a snapshot in time of what she was saying; that’s how you use Twitter. I was just bringing people into my world,” he said, noting that California Watch may follow up on what Martinez said in the phone conversation.
Judging from the story itself, the information that Sallady overheard, while hardly of national significance, were potentially important to Martinez’s campaign:
Cell phone technology has evolved to the point where the speaker no longer needs to shout into it to be heard, which is a lesson everyone should learn (me included). In a series of Tweets from Bob Salladay, a senior editor of investigative reporting for California Watch, who is currently on a train from Southern California to Oakland, the reporter is apparently sitting next to or near Santa Ana City Council member and AD-69 candidate Michelle Martinez. He tweets she’s loudly speaking about her campaign into a cell phone. The Tweets were posted between (9:45 and 10:30 AM).
From the details Sallady couldn’t help but overhear:
- That Martinez is allegedly working with an Indian tribe on an IE (independent expenditure).
- She says: “I’m working with chairman Robert Smith from Pala. (Indian tribe) Yeah, they are going to come in real big with some IEs.”
- She’s also lamenting: Assemblyman “Mike Gatto didn’t want to endorse me because rumor has it he wants to run for Speaker.”
- “99% sure it was Michele Martinez, Santa Ana council member. She’s headed to Oak for nurses union interview”
- “Also said she got Assemblywoman Norma Torres’ endorsement in Sacto yesterday.”
Besides the fact you shouldn’t be discussing “business” in a confined area, Martinez’s comments on the IEs with the Indian Tribe warrant a possible investigation. IEs are not supposed to be coordinated with the campaign and Martinez’s comments to her caller clearly place her knowledge about IEs with the tribe and her campaign.
Tenore notes that the incident raises questions for journalists who use Twitter and other forms of social media:
If you overhear a local official say something in an informal setting, should you tweet about it? There are risks, of course, in doing so. When you tweet information you haven’t verified, the potential to spread misinformation that could affect the public becomes higher — especially if you don’t have context to support the tweets, and you’re not 100 percent sure that the person is who you think it is.
That last part is a far point, obvious, if one sees someone who looks like they might be a prominent public official saying or doing something in public and then shares it via a network like Twitter, there’s always the danger that you’re observing something that isn’t what it seems and that an untrue accusation will spread around the internet before anyone has a chance to comment on it. Nonetheless, one can presume that a reporter who covers local politics would be familiar enough with local officials that they could be reasonable sure that the person sitting near them on a train and speaking loudly was in fact who they thought it was. Absent a specific company policy forbidding it, and some media organizations have started developing policies for social media use by employees that would potentially bar “reporting” unsubstantiated “breaking news” via a social network, then I’m honestly not sure what the problem is here. This would seem to be especially true in a case like this where what the reporter is overhearing is potentially a violation of campaign laws.
Of course, all of this raises the question of why Martinez (who has not denied that it was her on the train or that Salladay reported what she said accurately) would have a conversation like this is in public to begin with. We’ve all been in some public area where people talk on their cell phone far louder than they need to, forcing at least one side of their conversation upon us whether we want to hear it or not, and I’ve personally been surprised at the number of times you can hear people talking about things out loud that one would think they wouldn’t want anyone else to know about. Martinez’s outrage here would sound a little more sincere if it weren’t for the fact that she was dumb enough to talk about this on a train where anyone around her could here what she’s saying. The fact that one of those people happened to be a reporter is really just her bad luck.
What if the conversation that Salladay had overheard hadn’t had anything to do with the campaign, though? What if it was some kind of personal conversation that revealed, or appeared to reveal, something embarrassing of a personal nature? Would it have been appropriate, from a journalistic standpoint, for him to “live tweet” the conversation in that case? Admittedly, it becomes a more difficult question at that point, and it’s hard to make the case that the private life of a state representative is really all that newsworthy unless it involves something illegal. The fact that Martinez might have been having a fight with her husband, for example, doesn’t strike me as something the public needs to know. At the same time, thought, it’s a tough line to draw and it’s hardly an invasion of privacy if someone is speaking so loudly in public that everyone around them can hear clearly.
The real lesson here, of course, has nothing to do with journalism. The real lesson is that if you have something to talk about in a phone conversation that you don’t want others to overhear, you probably should be more discrete about it.