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Time to talk about how media use your social posts

What's in the public interest and what's interesting to the public aren't the same writes Katrine Evans, who co-led a study into what New Zealanders think about media entities using their personal social media posts

It’s common to portray social media content as public information, and to assume that anyone can reuse it without breaching privacy. But our new research published by the Broadcasting Standards Authority shows that the situation isn’t that simple, particularly when it comes to republishing information about people in a context that’s very different from that of the original social media post. The fact that information is publicly accessible doesn’t necessarily make it a free-for-all.

Using social media content in news stories is a classic example of where taking information out of context can change the impact significantly. One example is where the media supports a story by using online tributes, pictures or information about people who are ill or who have died. The original material is likely to have been posted for friends, family or a particular community, not with nationwide publicity in mind. The tone will be different from the original post. Some stories run over several days, with journalists looking for different angles and using online material to identify people who might provide comment. This type of exposure can come as an unwelcome shock and amplify distress – and it can result in a breach of privacy despite the original material being ‘public’.

Of course, there will be times when a legitimate public interest in the story is strong enough to justify a decision to republish the material. The broadcasters who helped us with the research were very clear that it’s considerations of public interest that drive decisions about what social media information they source and republish. Providing information and comment on matters of real concern is their principal job and they take it seriously. They’re also very aware of the need to comply with the broadcasting standards, including standards on privacy and fairness.

But the focus group discussions that we held with members of the public showed clearly that they hold broadcasters to a higher standard than they apply to themselves. In particular, the participants expect broadcasters to ask for consent before reusing social media content, and they’re highly critical of broadcasters who fail to take privacy sufficiently into account when reusing material.

The line between what’s of genuine public concern and what’s entertaining or ‘interesting’ to the public is also a pretty grey one at times.

"Some broadcasters believe it is acceptable to go behind privacy settings if the public interest is sufficiently high."

Kiwis are enthusiastic users of social media. But we don’t all use social media in the same way or for the same reasons. Some use social media passively to get information, or for entertainment. For others, social connection and maintaining relationships is the priority. Others are highly active producers of content or participate actively in online communities. Different social media platforms also cater for different needs and have different tones. The platform may say a lot about the context in which the user is sharing the information, the audience they expect to see it, and the level of privacy that they anticipate may apply.

Some social media users, no doubt, are still naïve about the risks of publishing some types of information, or are unaware that privacy settings aren’t a guarantee against more widespread publication. However, the focus group participants were generally savvy and took active steps to protect themselves. They were aware that privacy settings aren’t perfect, but expected backstop protections to be in place to help to protect their privacy. Contrary to popular mythology (but in line with most of the research), this included the younger people we spoke to – they cared a lot about their privacy and also had the technical competence to manage it successfully.

Some broadcasters believe it is acceptable to go behind privacy settings if the public interest is sufficiently high. But the focus groups suggested that the public would take a very dim view of such behaviour. Even if it is acceptable, there’s a serious question about how high the public interest would have to be to justify breaching privacy to this extent.

The research suggests the reason people expect higher privacy standards of broadcasters than they apply to themselves is because of the perceived level of harm that broadcasters can cause by widespread publication. Information published by a broadcaster also has an extra ring of credibility about it. However, broadcasters rightly noted that individuals can cause considerable harm to others by posting material on social media too, particularly where information is popular enough to be shared widely.

Kiwis are enthusiastic users of social media, but we don’t all use the platforms provided in the same way or for the same reasons. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

An example that we considered is where someone films a victim at a crash scene (sometimes impeding emergency services in the process) and then publishes the footage on their social media pages. Our focus group participants were unanimous in saying that such behaviour is not acceptable – though perhaps that was because it’s not particularly socially acceptable to confess to a different view. Yet we know that many people do film such scenes, to the considerable distress of the accident victims or those who are close to them.

The law does impose strict responsibilities on broadcasters. But individuals aren’t necessarily as immune from liability as they think they are. Recent law changes such as the harmful digital communications legislation and changes to the Privacy Act are starting to be able to address some of the most serious online breaches of privacy by individuals. So while there is a double standard at work in the law, as well as in people’s expectations, the gap is closing.

The reality remains, though, that broadcasters are more likely to field complaints about the social media material that they republish, and the Broadcasting Standards Authority is likely to have to deal with the issue more and more frequently. The existing privacy standards take us a fair way towards the right answer, but it’s becoming urgent to consider whether more targeted guidance and standards are required to deal with these issues.

The research report is only the start of that conversation but it highlights some of the key points that guidance might have to consider.

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