QUESTION: Can I use quotes from e-mail listservs and online newsgroups in my articles? What people have to say in these online forums is often really interesting and colourful. These “real people” quotes would really liven up my articles. Do I need to obtain their permission first? What if they refuse? Can I still use the quotes? Or would that be unethical?
ANSWER by Alan Bass
E-mail lists and news groups are essentially a public forum – anyone posting to a list or newsgroups should be aware that when they post a thought, they are essentially publishing that thought. All laws that cover publishing also apply to public posts.
Nevertheless, reporters should normally treat e-mail lists and newsgroups like overheard conversations – the ethical thing to do is contact the person who posted and get permission to quote, or, failing that, seek permission to do an interview. (Also, it’s always a good idea to double-check a poster’s bona fides. Sometimes that sixteen-year-old girl dying of cancer in cyberspace is a 58-year-old man with a twisted sense of humour in the world of flesh and blood.)
That’s the ethical approach because many people who post to listservs and news groups – often when they are under stress or very emotional – may not understand they are not engaging in a private conversation.
Journalists should avoid exploiting people just to liven up their articles.
However, public people with media savvy should already be aware their posts aren’t private. In certain situations, their e-mail and online posts might be quoted despite their objections if doing so was deemed by a reporter and her editors to be in the public interest. A clear-cut case would if a government minister posted statements that grossly contradicted his/her public positions. (It’s hard to imagine a minister being so stupid … hmmm, maybe not…)
Alan Bass’s 19 years of journalism experience includes reporting and writing for United Press and Canadian Press; working as a beat reporter, copy editor and section editor at the London Free Press; and editing a magazine and online daily news service. He is currently an assistant professor of journalism at Thompson Rivers University.
NOTE: This piece was inspired by an e-mail thread on the CAJ listserv. The question and answer have been edited for J-Source.