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Public officials blogging, do you quote?

The ethics of quoting blogs has been discussed (probably to death) before.

I understand that very fine line and have even danced dangerously close to it. On MySpace or Facebook or LiveJournal, or whatever your chosen platform, many people often have the (mis) perception of privacy. I get that you wouldn’t (or probably shouldn’t) just take it and run with information they posted in perceived confidentiality. This is for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the same as when you deal with inexperienced sources who aren’t as press-savvy: they shouldn’t be harmed because they’re naive. Or something more eloquently put than that. But you know what I’m talking about.

Now, tell me what you think about a scenario like this: An elected official in your community has a blog. The blog identifies him/her as that elected official and discusses issues related to that office as a means of reaching out to constituents. You have confirmed it is that person writing the blog.

Would you consider that blog fair game?

What if the first post in that blog instructs readers to “think of this as a press release”?

This conversation came up today and we didn’t all agree. So I was curious what other journalists think about it. I’m open to being wrong, but I’d like some help thinking through some of those issues that maybe just don’t appear to me because I am so open to transparency and new technology.

My stance is that blog post is more than fair game. My only concern is to confirm the material was posted by the individual and isn’t some type of hoax. Once you have that, why wouldn’t you use it — if only for a jumping off point for further reporting on issues raised. Heck, they want us (well their constituents) to consider it a press release. Even if they didn’t say that, I think if you’re going to stamp your name on a blog, tout you are a public official and use that as the topic of your blog than you have no reason to not expect people to hold you accountable for what you say the same as if you’d mailed out a flier with that message or said it during an open meeting.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. However, I’d be interested to hear what you guys have to say.

I’d also be interested to see what types of blogging your local officials do. Are there any university presidents, mayors, city council members, school board trustees, county commissioners, prosecutors, sheriffs, etc. keeping blogs in your community? Are they mostly PR/buzz? Or are they good sources for tips? How do you handle them? I know the city manager in Kent (where I went to college) keeps a blog about the city. But I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head.

(BTW this was not a public official on my beat and there isn’t any controversy. It was just an interesting discussion in the newsroom.)

5 Responses to “Public officials blogging, do you quote?”

  1. John Robinson Says:

    We have elected officials who blog and, of course, what they write is fair game. It often takes the tone of press releases, but often what they write is a good source of information. We had one city council member who delved into controversial stuff and had back-and-forth conversations on her blog with readers about contentious issues. (She was defeated in the November election, less for her blog, I think, but maybe more for her transparency.)

  2. Ryan Sholin Says:

    It’s definitely fair game, but…

    …I’d always try to call the blogger to confirm, let them elaborate, ask a couple more questions, etc.

    Then again, if you have a blog for your beat, nothing would be more appropriate than to quote from the blog.

    (Of course, I say this as someone whose blog has been quoted without much context more than once. Why didn’t the reporter at least bother to shoot me an e-mail to ask me to elaborate? They would have a better quote in the end if they did.)

  3. Howard Owens Says:

    I’m a little baffled — why wouldn’t it be “fair game”? (Whatever that means.)

    The term “fair game” implies some sense of gotcha journalism, like “should reporters troll elected officials blogs for stupid quotes.”

    However, if you accept the notion that journalism is a conversation, and a blog is just a conversational tool, then a reporter should be engaging in that conversation — and feel free to quote and comment on that elected officials blog, either in standard reporting stories or in his or her own blog.

    I fail to see why anyone in your newsroom would question whether what an elected official says in his blog should in any way be ignored or dismissed and not be eligible for vigilent coverage.

  4. Mindy McAdams Says:

    I think maybe the hesitation stems from the “netiquette” expected in private discussion forums. Back in the pre-Web days, The WeLL was a very, very active community that you had to pay to join, and only members could see the discussions. Some of the discussions were even double-walled — you had to be vetted before you could even be in the forum (most discussions were open to anyone who was a member).

    The WeLL had a policy of “You own your own words.” All Wellbeings knew that meant it was NOT fair game to copy someone’s words from inside The WeLL and post them outside. Of course, some people did just that. And sometimes a brash journalist would pay to join, run around all the forums, copy lots of stuff and quote it without asking permission — and REALLY make everyone else boiling mad! (This also had the effect of making journalists in general seem like jerks.)

    A lot of online discussions today are wide open — rather different from The WeLL.

    Most blogs are wide open, so I do not think the same considerations apply to anyone who blogs.

    And as John Robinson said, a public official is always on the record unless s/he explicitly says otherwise — in advance.

    In addition to checking that the person really did write the blog, I would also clearly identify the quoted matter as having come from the blog.

  5. Jim Says:

    This is not close. As long as you are sure this is the public official’s blog (and he/she confirm that) anything on there is fair game.
    I would suggest, in the outside chance the remark was controversial or inflammatory, that the reporter would make a copy of the original post.
    If the comment gets the politician in trouble, I would want the evidence of the original before they had a chance to delete or correct it.
    That is my biggest bone to pick with online new sites is that they often simply correct mistakes without acknowledging their existence.
    The standard for correcting mistakes should be the same online as it is for print.
    For what it’s worth.