Knight Center
Knight Center


After journalist bars others from re-publishing her tweets, questions about privacy and social media

Update 02/07/13: Freelance reporter Teri Buhl contacted the Knight Center and requested the pictures in her Twitter profile be removed from the story, stating that the images are copyrighted and the Knight Center – along with the journalism websites and – do not have permission to publish them. The Knight Center has removed the photos from the screenshot from her Twitter account per her request.

Screen shot 2013-02-06 at 2.05Screenshot of Buhl's Twitter profile with the disclaimer, "No Tweets Are Publishable." The Knight Center removed the images in Buhl's profile from this screenshot upon her request.

Original: On Monday, Feb. 4, Techdirt reported on a bizarre exchange between a Houston criminal defense lawyer and an investigative journalist over the nature of privacy on Twitter.

The journalist, Teri Buhl, caught the attention of some Twitter users when she posted a statement on her public account profile reading, “No tweets are publishable.” The argument that followed led to a debate over how journalists should use social media as a source for their reporting and what rights to privacy—if any—social media users have when it comes to the press. 

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman pointed out the limbo between public and private on Twitter, noting that while users own their tweets, they also authorize Twitter to “make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and let others do the same” by agreeing to the Terms of Service. 

Buhl told Sonderman in a phone call that she sees Twitter as a conversation, “but it’s not a publication:”

“Especially when my tweets are protected — I am not having a public conversation. And I’m not saying things on Twitter so that somebody’s going to pick them up and go publish it. That’s not a goal.”

Buhl eventually made her Twitter account private, which should afford her more control over who views her tweets, according to Poynter, noting that private tweets cannot be retweeted, embedded or appear on search results.

“I just got lazy,” she told Poynter, “I should have never unprotected it.”

Buhl’s interpretation of social media isn’t unique. U.S. Senate staffers have also claimed that their public tweets were “off the record.” 

In a media environment where social media plays an increasingly important role, any assumptions of privacy should be reconsidered. 

“People are still figuring out how to use services like Twitter and navigate some of the potential pitfalls,” Alfred Hermida, associate professor of journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in an email. 

“A user might think that their message will only be seen by a handful of followers. But the conversation is taking place in public, being recorded and archived and is then searchable,” he added.

“Just because something is public, it does not mean it was intended to be available to the public,” Hermida said. “A journalist faces an ethical decision here. Does the public interest in the use from the material taken from social media outweigh any potential harm its use may cause?"

This is especially the case when a reporter gains access to a private account. The Columbia University School of Journalism released a case study in 2010 examining how the New Haven Independent navigated the ethical dilemma of publishing material from a source’s Facebook page. 

During the investigation into the murder of Annie Le, a Yale University graduate student, in September 2009, the Independent found a police report identifying the suspect as Raymond Clark, which led reporter Melissa Bailey to his ex-girlfriend, Jessica Del Rocco. Bailey found Del Rocco on Facebook and sent her a “friend” request. Soon afterwards, Bailey sent a message identifying herself as a reporter and requesting an interview. Del Rocco accepted Bailey’s friend request but declined to be interviewed for the story.

Now, as a Facebook friend of Del Rocco, Bailey had access to her posts, including Del Rocco’s reactions to the news of Clark's involvement in the murder. Bailey and her editor decided to use the material from Del Rocco, but withhold her name at publication.

“The way I saw it, she was literally allowing me access to her Facebook page,” Bailey told the Knight Center via Skype. “We didn’t use any factual information from her Facebook page, we got that from the police report. It was more emotional, reaction to the news.”

Bailey acknowledged that the first rule of using social media is to identify as a reporter and explain that material collected may be published. Reflecting back on her experience with Del Rocco, Bailey said she would have sent the message identifying herself as a reporter first and then submitted the friend request to be absolutely sure she knew who Bailey was.  


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