should news orgs use images scraped from social networking sites?

Late last month, the Editor of the BBC News website, Steve Herrmann, wrote a post asking,

"When is it acceptable for us to make use of personal pictures and video
available on the internet? In the past, personal pictures of members of
the public who become the subject of news stories (particularly tragic
events) have usually only been available if supplied by family or

Each month, the BBC holds an editorial policy meeting to discuss
emerging editorial issues, tricky editorial situations that have
arisen, and to circulate any new guidelines that have been issued. This month the meeting discussed the use of photos found online – on social networking sites, photosharing sites, etc – and a briefing note was subsequently issued, giving advice, although not setting out an official policy.

It’s not unusual for the BBC to provide staff with editorial guidance like this but what is quite extraordinary (and will probably the topic of another post here later this week) is that, in this instance, Herrmann has posted that guidance verbatim in a follow-up post on the Editors Blog. Here’s the bit of that guidance that readers will find most interesting:

"The ease of availability of a picture does not remove our
responsibility to assess the sensitivities in using it. Simply because
material may have been put into the public domain may not always give
the media the right to exploit its existence.

use of a picture by the BBC brings material to a much wider public than
a personal website that would only be found with very specific search
criteria. Consideration should be given to the context in which it was
originally published including the intended audience, the impact of
re-use on those who may be grieving or distressed, and the legal issues
of privacy and copyright. In the interests of accuracy, care should
also be taken to verify the picture."

Let’s pick this apart a bit.

Many readers will recall the three models of blogs I like to use to help people understand the types of blogs, and different motivations their authors might have. Most blogs, I suggest in that model, are "closed" – that is, they are blogs intended for a small, closed audience consisting of family or friends, not for mass consumption. To demonstrate this model in presentations, I show screen-shots from a blog that carefully documented the planning of a couple’s wedding and a baby blog. In both instances the blog is essentially private, even if they aren’t password protected. The authors have done nothing to promote their blogs to a wider audience nor do they want or expect people they don’t know personally to encounter their blogs. The same is true of the profiles that many people create on social networking services such as facebook and myspace.

A news or media organisation could link to or show my facebook profile or baby blog or twitter feed on screen or in print, but I’d be pretty pissed off if they did without first asking to do so. These are intended for friends, for people I choose to allow to see them, not for mass audiences. I also own the copyright to this material, something that shouldn’t be forgotten by those who may wish to use it without permission.

The Guardian too has been grappling, in public, with the issue of using photos mined from social networking and photosharing sites. The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor Siobhain Butterworth recently wrote on Comment is Free: 

"The fact that information is more or less publicly available may not
be a complete answer to all arguments about privacy. Privacy is about
intrusion rather than secrecy and the question is whether you have a
reasonable expectation that something is private, rather than whether
you have done or said something in public. These concepts are not easy
to apply to social networking sites where the point of the exercise is
to share information with others.

In this case Bilawal Bhutto
turned himself into a public figure when he became joint leader of the
PPP and there’s an obvious public interest argument for finding out
more about him. The writer and the editors on the day thought carefully
about what should be disclosed to readers and what should be left out
of the story. The material was of a relatively trivial nature – it was
not especially personal and did not reveal much about his private life.
There’s no call, in these circumstances, for a heavyweight public
interest argument to justify publication."

What if the photos had shown Bhutto with a child, or perhaps holding a beer and cigarette at a party whilst surrounded by gorgeous models? Or carrying a kalashnikov or handheld RPG? I’m not suggesting that such photos do exist but, if they did, would news and media organisations be entitled to bring them to the attention of their audiences? Applying the guidance recently supplied to BBC journalists, I’d suggest that unless the photo of Bhutto holding a child was the story itself then no, that image probably shouldn’t be shown. A photo of him at a party, beer and women in hand might be usable because it would show he was living a more Western life than many of his party, and it’s potential voters, might feel comfortable with. And certainly if a photo emerged of a party leader just about anywhere in the world posing with a weapon a news organisation could justifiably say using it is in the public interest. Those judgement calls, based on an entirely fictional scenarios, are based on my own opinions – and I’d love to hear what you think. Did I make the right calls?

The debate over the of photos and other material scraped by news organisations from social networking sites has been going since at least the time of the Virginia Tech shootings, when I helped various BBC News outlets find such material but, later, second guessed the way we and other news organisations had handled that.

In the UK at this very moment, many people are starting to ask if newspapers and others should continue to show photographs and other material taken from the online profiles of the seventeen teenagers who have tragically, and so far police think in un-coordinated acts (one MP is actually blaming social networking sites), taken their own lives.

With more and more journalists and researchers using the internet to find first hand accounts and background material for stories, indeed with some journalists starting to consider social networking sites and blogs part of their reporting patch, it’s an issue that’s unlikely to go away – and which should continue to be the subject of much scrutiny and debate.


  1. Hi Robin,
    A very thought provoking article. I have often wondered how the family feels when their child’s myspace/website photos are plastered all over the newspaper and television when the child hits the news – perhaps through a tragic accident or crime.
    Maybe they might be relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the media at such a tragic time – but it’s more likely they would be horrified.
    Often the families may not be completely aware of that child’s (and I’m not necessarily talking minor) online presence. They might be completely clueless as to how people might even get hold of those images. Perhaps they might prefer a different photograph to be shown. Either way I think that before the media use a particular image they should – for decency’s sake – contact the family first to ask permission.
    The problem with that of course is that the media find it very hard to take no for an answer.
    And lets be honest – are not always going to choose the most flattering photographs.

  2. Hi Robin, its always inspiring for me. The same is true of the profiles that many people create on social networking services such as facebook and myspace.

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