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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Herb says:

    you probably should be more discrete about it.

    But the commercials didn’t say anything about being discreet. They just said “best nationwide network” and showed people doing important things from park benches and coffee shops and trains….

  2. Jib says:

    The only thing about this story that is different is the twitter angle. The caught talking on phones in public is old news. For just one of many examples, in 2002 Rick Neuheisel got caught by a Seattle reporter who just happened to be catching a plane to Seattle, talking on cell phone in SF about interviewing for the 49er’s job after telling everyone, including his boss that he was not interviewing. The Seattle Times ran the story. In this case with twitter

    What is interesting how the reporters boss wants to handle this. Do they want reporters breaking news on twitter? Would they not rather break that news in the paper? Armed with the lead that the politician is coordinating IE the paper could ask pointed questions and build a big story around it.

    If I was a newspaper editor I would not want my reporters breaking news on their twitter feeds. I pay them to break news in my newspaper. It is the blurring of the professional and personal that makes social media tricky.

  3. I can think of one possible instance in which one may not want to report the conversation. What if the person speaking in a public place was intoxicated? One could argue that the person was not completely in control of his/her faculties.

    I believe that some of Billy Martin’s statements while drunk HAD been reported, however, so it wouldn’t be novel to report any such statement.

  4. murray says:

    IMO you would be well advised to follow the example of your colleagues Steven Taylor & James Joyner and post at most two times a day something with substance rather than throwing out everything that goes through your mind.

    Don’t do it for me. Do it for them. You’re drowning this place.

  5. PJ says:

    Anyone (beside the owner(s)) who has issues with Doug’s output doesn’t need to read everything.
    The blog is free to read and it’s free not to read too.

  6. JKB says:

    I think we need to learn the opposite lesson. There needs to be a feed in which everyone can post overheard conversations. Then maybe the self-entitled a-holes will show some discretion and learn to use their inside voice.

    Tweet away, then perhaps some will learn how to use a phone properly.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @John E. Bredehoft:

    I can think of one possible instance in which one may not want to report the conversation. What if the person speaking in a public place was intoxicated? One could argue that the person was not completely in control of his/her faculties.

    In which case, that then becomes the story: “Mayor totally sh!t faced on train calling his rivals 8 yo daughter a “slut.”

    If James or Steven or Rodney or Steve or Lawrence, or…. If they have a problem with how much Doug posts, I am sure they are more than capable of saying as much to Doug w/o your intervening on their behalf.

    If it bothers you…. Well you know what to do.

  8. MM says:

    In my opinion, this is due in large part to the media avoiding claims of bias by acting as stenographers for politicians. Copy and paste candidate statement, copy and paste opponent statement. Reference a poll if available. Interview a couple of people on the street if you have time. Save. Print.

    I’m sure Councilmember Martinez has never actually encountered an investigative report before.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    An ordinary railway passenger car is a public place. Councilmember Martinez should have known she had no expectation of privacy there.

  10. Franklin says:

    @JKB: Yeah, as Salladay responded, “There is nothing secret about an elected official talking loudly on a public train.” Note, especially, the “loudly” part.

  11. says:

    I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiment that the politician had no expectation of privacy, but I’d point out that the reporter is, by his own admission, not 100% certain who made the statements (yeah I know he was pretty certain) and has no idea who they were talking to and the context they were made in. By his own admission he gave the speaker no chance to respond or add any context.

    Without some sort of evidence the reporter is basically starting rumors.