What's Missing from Journalists' Tactic of Snagging Stories from Twitter? Respect.
Christine Fox does not consider herself a social justice advocate. Using the handle @steenfox, the 37-year-old uses Twitter for fun, she says, amassing thousands of followers while simply shooting the shit with her friends. On March 12, Fox’s timeline took a decidedly different turn.
That night, to illustrate that there is no correlation between clothing and sexual assault, Fox asked her more than 12,000 followers to share what they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Hundreds of women participated. No matter how much time had passed since the assault, they tweeted in heartbreaking detail, remembering the feel of stiff, generic shoes on their feet, where their school uniform shorts hit in relation to their knees, the way a salmon-colored blouse looked on their brown skin. Some tweets gutted you in exactly 140 characters: "was 4 when it happened…It's the only thing I remember of my childhood…Nightmares still come back…I'm 23 now…It was my father. He hates me."
It was the first time Fox facilitated a conversation on this scale and it was also the first time she publicly shared her story as an assault survivor. She walked away from her computer that night feeling positive about what took place—and many tweeted to thank her, saying that through the tears, the discussion felt healing. But the next morning, Fox felt her hands go shaky. She felt nauseous and sweaty. She’d later learn from followers on Twitter that after reading through hundreds of tweets about assault, she had likely “triggered” herself, a term she was relatively unfamiliar with. Still, she knew something powerful had happened and she was proud to have sparked it.
And then BuzzFeed came along and fucked everything up.
Staff writer Jessica Testa, sticking to BuzzFeed’s usual approach of pumping out content quickly, put together a listicle that night that embedded tweets from people who took part in Fox’s discussion, spliced in longer quotes, and wove in a stat from RAINN to create a post titled “Sexual Assault Survivors Answer the Question: What Were You Wearing When You Were Assaulted.” Testa obtained permission from every woman whose tweets were featured in her post, except Fox’s, whose Twitter profile photo was made into the thumbnail image for the post—meaning her face would appear every single time the post was shared.
Buzzfeed screenshot published here with Fox's permission.
After the post went live, Fox asked Testa to do the right thing: to remove her picture. There were emails exchanged, phone calls, angry tweets. After the post went up, four women who agreed to participate requested their tweets be removed because they were being trolled or were uncomfortable with the format and wide audience. On Friday, more than a day after it was published, BuzzFeed removed Fox’s image from their homepage and blurred her photo in the embedded tweets—but only after many of Fox’s supporters angrily tweeted about the issue and after Fox enlisted the help of a BuzzFeed editor she followed on Twitter. By then, however, it was too late. Fox’s brother had seen the post all over his Facebook feed, and panicked.
While she did start the discussion on a public, online forum, Fox did not intend for it to make headlines. Unlike Twitter conversations that are clearly intended to change media narratives—like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #notyourasiansidekick—Fox did not create a hashtag for her question and saw her feed as a place for discussion among friends.
“There is no way I could have ever guessed it would have turned into something like this,” Fox says. “What happened was organic. There was no hashtag, there was no big plan. I’m feeling better now, but in the days after I felt sick. My picture was all over without my permission, especially on Facebook. The man who assaulted me is on Facebook. How did Testa know I wasn’t hiding from him? And I felt horrible for my baby brother, too. Can you imagine if one day you’re on Twitter or Facebook and you see an image of your sibling attached to a news story? You’d be too afraid to look at it. Imagine how my brother felt.”
Fox says despite what she was put through, she has no bad feelings for Testa.
“It’s clear what she wanted was content and if you use tweets with no names and no faces attached, you’ll get less traffic,” Fox says. “Testa’s main objective is keeping her job. Is there anything wrong with that? Hell no. But the way she went about this was wrong. She missed an opportunity to really tell an important story and not just keep her integrity, but gain more. Instead, she messed up. She’s now getting her credibility questioned and she’s made a lot of people even more distrustful of journalists.”
Fox is right when she asserts an incredible thing happened that night. Today, she is focusing on the positive, saying two critical discussions have emerged in the wake of the conversation she facilitated and the resulting BuzzFeed post: survivors are connecting with each other and journalists are being forced to question the ethics of using tweets without permission, especially when they involve sensitive subject matter.
Conversation about the ethics of quoting Twitter users in news stories has exploded in the past week, with New York magazine, Slate, and The Washington Post weighing in. What’s being discussed goes beyond protecting the survivors of sexual assault; it’s about the ethics of whether to name sexual assault survivors who discuss their experiences online, the blurred lines between public and private conversations, and about how journalists should respectfully navigate the new world of social media. Respect is key, as it’s what is most lacking.
This was made clear by the Poynter Institute’s media ethicist Kelly McBride, who wrote about the incident in defense of BuzzFeed. The Poynter Institute is a school for journalism—they’re often the go-to source for figuring out the ethics of dicey reporting scenarios like this one. But in her article, McBride painted Fox as “angry” for no good reason, embedding the tweets featuring Fox’s image—again, without permission—and completely erasing her status as a sexual assault survivor, originally writing: "@steenfox does not identify herself as a survivor and neither does Testa. She is only identified as the one who posed the question."
Fox did identify herself as an assault survivor. McBride’s write-up was later amended to read: “And while there is a widely accepted guideline in journalism that you don’t identify rape victims without their permission, @steenfox didn’t identify herself as a survivor in two tweets that asked others to share their stories.”
Changes were made only after Fox wrote McBride a detailed email about her assault.
“I thought if she could just feel the way I felt when so many people shared their stories with me, she would do the right thing. In my email, I told her things about my assault I haven’t even told my therapist. I outlined every detail, hoping she would see me as a person and do the right thing. I wanted a retraction,” Fox says.
Fox didn’t get a retraction. What McBride did instead was CC Poynter News Editor Andrew Beaujon on the email from Fox detailing her assault, without Fox’s consent. Beaujon provided his phone number in the comments section of McBride’s article and spoke to Fox on the phone, telling Fox he would have McBride contact her again. When McBride followed up with Fox, she CC’d Beaujon on their email chain detailing Fox’s assault. Fox has not heard from McBride since March 14 and the media ethicist has yet to apologize for sharing the details of her assault with Beaujon.
Thirty hours after publication, the Poynter story was amended, though initially there was no note informing readers the story had been amended. In a follow up post, McBride frames her mistake as a teachable moment, outlining how she could have approached Fox’s story differently, including reaching out more vigorously, correcting errors more quickly, and acknowledging that in her desire to be a part of the conversation, she missed the opportunity to provide more in-depth reporting.
So McBride learned her lesson, at the expense of Fox’s mental health, well-being, and safety. But isn’t that always the case? A petition created on Fox’s behalf calling for a retraction from Poynter refers to what happened as “voyeur journalism.” That’s important to unpack. The conversation that hasn’t been touched on by journalists in this case is the hardest and the most necessary to have: the conversation about race.
In the days since the BuzzFeed story broke, Fox has gained thousands of Twitter followers and is now hovering above the 17,000 mark. She says this is her platform; Twitter has given her a voice. This is true for many women of color. Twitter has provided a rare tool to amplify the voices of those on the margins.
The night Fox curated her conversation, I saw how other women of color, those who often tweet about feminism or social justice issues, appeared to be waiting for the other shoe to drop—because they knew it would. It was only a matter of time before the conversation was co-opted. This is what happens on Twitter. Women of color’s tweets get quoted without permission or without proper attribution, their conversations turned into stories by journalists who never interact with them, just lurk in their timelines, then get paid for turning their tweets into stories. Voyeur journalism.
“I’ve been told this is very common for journalists, but it was the first time I ever dealt with journalists in relation to Twitter,” Fox says. “A white woman told me that if I’d been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, this would have never happened. I don’t want to say that Testa and McBride looked at my picture, saw a Black girl, and decided I didn’t need to be interviewed, that I didn’t need to be treated with care and respect, that it was okay to try to silence me and write me off as angry. I wonder if McBride took a look at me and figured she knew enough to write about me without interviewing me. What I do know is that McBride didn’t expect to be challenged or held accountable.”
It’s telling that the only person to respectfully cover Fox’s story in the immediate aftermath was The Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris. It is no secret that newsrooms are predominantly white. It is also no secret that Twitter provides journalists with story ideas. On a site where journalists already struggle to see users as human beings—not just potential sources or leads or content—what are the chances that white journalists will enter online communities of color and treat their stories with the care and respect they deserve, especially when they’re under pressure to churn out stories as quickly as possible?
It’s worth pointing out that a bulk of the journalists who came to Testa’s defense are white, including McBride, the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, to name a few. If you’re a journalist who buys into what you were taught about remaining detached and objective, staying removed from a story comes so much easier when you’re reporting on communities you don’t inhabit. When something like this happens to a woman of color like Fox, it’s easier to discuss your right as a journalist to tell a story or to argue that tweets are public and can be used however you please, rather than doing the hard work of understanding the racial dynamics at play and questioning why you’re incapable of prioritizing and centralizing the wellbeing of the people of color whose stories you’re attempting to tell.
A study from The 4th Estate shows the racial imbalance in newsrooms.
It’s worth pointing out that BuzzFeed protected the identities of Twitter users who thought the Steubenville rape victim was to blame. It’s important to question why the face of a sexual assault survivor was plastered on their main page without her consent.
“I don’t know why it was assumed I wasn’t entitled to consent. I wasn’t seen as a person; I was traffic. My feelings didn’t matter; I was content,” Fox said. “I think that’s a problem in journalism, but I think it’s also something else. I’m a woman of color who was erased from my own narrative. I was very green going into this, but this won’t happen again. Journalists need to know that we will hold them accountable. They messed with the wrong one.”
Wednesday night I watched Fox’s timeline and felt my heart growing heavy. In the seven months I’ve been a member of the site, I’ve seen how these things play out, seen how beautiful, healing community conversations get reduced and sensationalized for page clicks. The night Fox led her conversation, I wanted to tell her that when I was assaulted, I was wearing jeans and a Misfits hoodie, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Today, I want to tell Fox I’m committed to making the media safer for women like her.
Tina Vasquez is a staff blogger at In The Fray and an associate editor at Black Girl Dangerous. You can follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
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