Sunday, October 14, 2007

When Your E-Mails Get Published...

               Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal environment reporter  James Bruggers  blogged this week (  about his recent learning experience about bloggers and e-mail.

On Oct. 2, the Courier-Journal published a story by Bruggers, Lawmakers question global warming ( ) . Following that, he had an e-mail conversation with local attorney  Theresa Fritz Camoriano , in which Bruggers says "I was taken to task for reporting on the comments of two key Kentucky legislators who oversee environmental committees in the General Assembly."

As it turns out, Camoriano is not just a reader, but publisher of The Jefferson Review ( , which Bruggers described as offering "Libertarian and conservative essays and links." According to Bruggers, in their e-mail exchange she did not identify her connection to that site. Camoriano then went on to publish excerpts from their exchange ( )  on her site, without asking Bruggers for permission or notifying him of her intent.

Says Bruggers, "In the rough-and-tumble world of politics today, [I've learned that] anything that goes out of my computer in an e-mail could end up in a publication, somewhere." Quite true.

Personally, I think it's a nuanced ethical question about whether it's OK to publish an e-mail you've received without permission -- especially when your discussion involves work or statements already in the public view.

However, regardless of whether such behavior is ethically or morally acceptable, the larger issue is that this  will  happen. You e-mails, instant messages, and perhaps even quotes from live of phone conversations will get published by someone at some point, without permission. So how can journalists deal with that?

In my opinion, Bruggers' experience illustrates why I think it's useful for news organizations to allow public comments on all stories. There should always be a prominent public option for discussing journalism that has been published. This, then, thwarts the need for private back-channels with unclear and possibly unequal expectations of privacy. just be transparent, put it all on the record, and let commenters and reporters alike be publicly accountable for their statements.

The Courier-Journal does allow readers to post online comments. (In contrast, The Jefferson Review does not allow comments.) In fact, Bruggers' Oct. 2 story received several comments. Unfortunately, as of this writing the site's comment/forum system is having technical problems, so I can only see the first few comments received. I don't know whether Camoriano posted her challenge to Bruggers publicly, in addition to sending a private e-mail.

Let's assume Camoriano did not post a public comment to the story, and only approached Bruggers via e-mail. What options did Bruggers have? One approach might have been to acknowledge her message and then ask her to post it as a public comment, signed with her name -- and telling her that he'd be happy to respond to her comment in public. This establishes ground rules and transparency from the outset of the exchange.

That said, I know that many reporters are not in the habit of reading or responding to public comments on their work. Yes, we're all terribly busy. Yes, many news orgs' comment systems are clunky and frustrating to use. Yes, public comments can be rude, ill-informed, irrelevant, or otherwise unworthy of response. Furthermore, many journalists seem more comfortable with e-mail -- so it tends to grab our attention more easily. Finally, many journalists do attempt to respond to reader e-mails -- and may even feel an obligation to do so.

These common habits and attitudes about public conversation vs. one-to-one discourse are understandable, but they can work against journalists. If you're not already doing so, it might make more sense to start browsing online comments about your work and responding there, even if you're not accustomed (or even averse) to that strategy.

If you're going to engage with readers or critics at all, and if by doing so you inevitably risk having your statements published, why not gain the upper hand and have those conversations on your "turf"?

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