Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Press Releases: It's an online world now

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald editorial crew needs some lessons on online communication and Internet copyright law. This is clear in the wake of a recent dustup the paper had with a woman who took a photo in October 2010, posted it on Flickr way back then, and was very surprised to find at the top of the PPH's front page, and prominently online, on August 7.
The picture was the crux of a Press Herald story covering part of the ongoing revelations about Reverend Bob Carlson, who killed himself in November 2011 when allegations began surfacing that he sexually abused minors. In this development of the matter, which is being covered exhaustively in other media, former Husson University president William Beardsley (now the state's conservation commissioner) confronted Carlson in 2006 about an allegation of some sort of sexual misconduct. The reverend resigned from his post as campus chaplain; Beardsley claims he told Carlson not to return to campus. The photo is evidence that Carlson did visit campus for official events after that conversation.
Having learned of the photo's existence on Flickr, the paper downloaded the photo from the online site to run in print and online, describing the photo as taken by "the former administrative assistant to Rodney Larson, dean of the School of Pharmacy."
It appears, then, the PPH knew the identity of the person behind the camera. And the photo was clearly marked on Flickr as "© All Rights Reserved" But the paper never contacted that person, despite the contact-the-photographer button Flickr provides on every page.
The post-publication exchange with the shooter in question, Audrey Slade, raises questions about the paper's understanding of good online conduct.
She wrote twice to PPH brass, asking them to take the photo down. On August 9, managing editor Steve Greenlee wrote back, claiming the paper "could not, by deadline, determine who the photo belonged to" and saying the paper determined it could use the photo in part because it was "on a public site (Flickr), available for anyone to view, with no obvious indication of ownership." Greenlee also claimed "there was no contact information for the account holder on the Flickr page."
In a blog post about the situation, Slade wondered about the ethics of basing an entire article on her photos, and all but identifying her, without contacting her, either for comment or for permission. She noted Flickr's message button, and added, "perhaps since they were able to see my name attached to my flickr page, they could have googled me, thus finding . . . my email address." She also noted that her job title was nowhere to be found on Flickr, so the paper clearly had additional information about her identity.
The paper answered with a post of its own, admitting the reporter "neglected to click the message button on Flickr." (That button is how I reached Slade to speak to her about this situation.)
After admitting sin by omission, the paper then gave three reasons it published the photo without contacting her and without credit: "The photo was viewable by the public with no privacy settings. The image was central to a story of great public interest. Naming the photographer without her permission would have pulled her into a controversy unnecessarily."
The second one is true, and the only excuse of the three that's even reasonable. The third reason might hold water if the article hadn't all but named her. As for the first, the Press Herald's own photos are "viewable by the public with no privacy settings" — but we can be sure the PPH would send its lawyers after anyone who used them without permission or credit.
The paper later took the photo down and told Slade it would pay her $300. She wrote back, saying it had been four days, and therefore $400 was in order — as well as a public apology. She's gotten a check for the full amount, but she's still waiting on the apology.