Blogging and the Ethics of Contact Information
A blogstorm erupted last evening over Michelle Malkin‘s decision to publish a press release from the Students Against War, the group who chased military recruiters off the UC Santa Cruz campus last week, including the contact information for the student organizers. Ezra Klein has the most reasonable of the critiques:
Rather than calling and speaking to them herself, which is what members of the press are supposed to use such releases for, Malkin published their personal information on her website, prompting her hordes of orcish mouth-breathers to brandish their pitchforks and inundate the unsuspecting students with death threats (some of which you can read here). When the students frantically called on Malkin to remove their numbers, she posted their contact information again.
The invaluable John Amato, who’s got some video from the scene, gets it right. Malkin, he writes, “crosse[d] the line of decency..the death threats are emanating from her blog and she knows it. Malkin understands the nature of the fear and outrage she causes. Will she take responsibility when somebody gets hurt?”
A skilled and experienced rhetorical warrior, she saw the pale, white flesh of their throats and lunged. The vicious always seek out the weak. Rather than forgive their poorly-written, too-revealing press release, she published their oversight, opening them to danger and harm. If any of these students are hurt by a crazed Malkinite, the blood will drip from her hands, the guilt will burden her shoulders. But forgive her just the same, for there is nought else she can do.
The problem, though, is that Malkin got the press release from the IndyMedia website and merely reproduced it. Indeed, the release and offending contact information are still there. SAW’s site prominently links IndyMedia, suggesting a collaborative relationship.
Dan Riehl argues that publishing the information nonetheless violates journalistic principles: “having written numerous press releases for one organization some time ago – the contact information is understood to not be for publication, but for press inquiries. That’s a fact of the trade. At least, it was.” In a Web world, though, I would argue that the ethics are somewhat different. The nature of blogging, in particular, is to provide as much background information as possible so that readers can delve into it if they chose.
I would think, too, that we would differentiate those who dig up and publicize the private information of people in the news, whether public officials or otherwise, from those who reprint press releases. The former is, in my view, clearly wrong. The latter? Not so much.
My own (until now, unstated) policy with regard to publishing contact information from emailers and press releases is that I do for public officials but not for private citizens. Thus, when I post on a press release from, say, a congressional office or a political campaign, I often make the entire contents of the press release, including the contact information, available, unless I have specifically been asked not to.
Responding to the criticism, Malkin herself notes that “the disclaimer on my contact page makes clear, ‘All e-mail is subject to print, including your name. If you don’t want me to publish your e-mail, or if you would like to remain anonymous, just let me know.’)” Further, despite claims made elsewhere, “not one of the three SAW students whose contact information is still publicly accessible across several websites has e-mailed me as of 12:30am EDT 4/18 to request that I remove anything.”
Malkin prints some of the hate mail she received in response to this flap, including the email addresses of the senders, and comments, “All this because I think the punks at UC Santa Cruz who ran our military recruiters off their campus should be held accountable.” So, clearly, she intended that readers would use that contact information to voice their opinions about the protests. Did she intend that idiots would make death threats, real or otherwise? Certainly not.
Malkin also found support from several DailyKos commenters, mostly in the spirit of all’s fair in love and war. More on that in a future post.