Personal note: I have not consulted or interviewed the teacher involved in this issue, though I have talked with her previously and followed her on twitter. Any previous contact I have had with her has not been quoted in this piece. Apart from following her on Twitter, I have no relationship with her. The teacher under scrutiny has made no public comment to me or any other person or publication.
At an hour far earlier than could be considered polite, Kristian Silva (a journalist with the Age) published “Explicit teacher quits classroom”, which he then promoted via his personal Twitter account.
To summarise Silva’s article, he described the teacher’s photos as “raunchy”, her posts as “sexually explicit” and quoted selected previous tweets, all the while confirming that it was not believed anyone at the school or schooling community bar one anonymous complainant had seen the account.
The article is an interesting exercise in journalism, combining salacious suggestion in conjunction with quotes from those involved (and those not involved).
Silva implies in the headline and article copy that, despite official quotes to the contrary, the teacher had quit over the incident. She hasn’t. The teacher in question had already arranged a year of leave in consultation with the principal months ago so she could focus on her well-being. So, she hadn’t “quit” over this incident.
Given Silva had quoted tweets from November, weeks before she closed her account, he either already knew of her plans and health struggles (and she had mentioned them often) or his source did. This was not referenced in the article.
In fact, on her Twitter account the teacher had mentioned being the subject of a workplace vendetta by an individual. Was this Silva’s source? Was this something he took into account, given there was one complaint the Principal had received?
The article repeatedly makes use of salacious quotes from her Twitter account to highlight his suggestion the teacher was unprofessional. But was she? The Principal of the school received the complaint and, though gave direction to remove the account, did not think it of sufficient concern to discipline her or escalate the complaint.
Though Silva mentions the account has since closed and had more than 1000 followers, he made no mention that it was a locked account for the past month, instead referring to it as “a public Twitter account”. For perspective, the school she worked at has 1900 students and the Age has an online readership of 609,000 on Sundays (Roy Morgan Research, September 2012).
It should be noted at this point that there has been activity on Twitter today by students from the school who have recognised her based on Silva’s article and mentioned her name publicly. So thanks to the article, she has now been identified (or soon will be) to the entire school community.
And, for background and to counteract the deflatingly logical and calm quotes from the school’s Principal, Silva contacted a cyber security expert, Susan McLean and Parents Victoria President, Sharron Healy for some colour. Silva does not note whether these individuals were aware of her twitter presence beforehand or just shown a selection of quotes by the journalist. One wonders whether their selective inclusion was to add more colour and condemnation due to lack of reaction from the Principal and the teacher’s refusal to comment on the matter.
After reading through the Victorian Institute of Teaching’s Code of Conduct, two things should be made clear. The VIT state up front that the Code is not a disciplinary tool. According to the Code, the teacher in question doesn’t appear to contravene anything in sections 1-3, nor does she in any way display serious misconduct, incompetence or lack of fitness to teach which, if breached, would result in the loss of her teaching license.
Did the teacher post photos and selfies? Yes, she did. Were they raunchy? The photos in question would show cleavage and skin but she was always clothed and nothing that could constitute exposure, let alone deserve public censure. As one tweeter told me “I’ve never seen her post anything online that was any more revealing than a fashion blog or something you would see on a billboard”. The most revealing (and yet still fully clothed) photo of her I had seen was when she shared a fitness/weight loss celebratory shot and even then, it was a shade more ‘demure’ than anything shared over in the weight loss progress pics shared over at Reddit and, as of this moment, I’m unaware if the Age have plans to mine that subreddit for shaming or reporting purposes.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a non-event, a news item without merit, given the teacher in no way breached the rules relating to her profession, removed the account as requested on the basis of one complaint and her employer deciding to not escalate the matter. And yet here we are with Kristian Silva on a Sunday morning.
- Silva implies the teacher has quit over her Twitter and photo activity: false
- Silva implies teacher has shown unprofessional conduct: false according to VIT code of conduct
- Silva calls her account “public”: false
- Silva omits any mention of her health and apparently does not use this factor as mitigating reason to not publish
- Silva may have presented a highly selected list of quotes and images to elicit quotes from a security expert and parent group president with the impact of influencing negative commentary
- What was previously a contained issue is now viewable to approximately 609,000 readers and an entire school community
- Previously unaware students on Twitter have recognised her since the article’s publication, who have stated her name online
This article is particularly curious in light of the following clauses in various codes of professional conduct to which we can assume Silva should or does adhere. I’ll include my selection of potentially applicable clauses below the body of this post. I should state this is a preliminary list and it may in fact not be applicable, but if Silva can quote a protected account, I can quote publicly available material.
Even if the article does not breach these codes, there are still questions that need to be answered. In fact, many people on Twitter have questions for Kristian Silva who, so far, has ignored any question directed to him via Twitter. This is entirely within his rights, but I’d be interested in the answers from either him or The Age.
Questions for Kristian Silva and the Age:
- Where did the teacher breach any rule in the VIT Code of Conduct?
- If Silva used the same source who complained to the school, are he and his employers confident they have not aided someone further bully someone against Worksafe Victoria standards?
- If Silva used no source and researched this without a tip off, are he and his employers comfortable he acted within the assorted codes of conduct (AJA, Press Council, Fairfax, and The Age) required of his job?
- Judging from today’s reaction and information since made public, is Silva going to persist in writing about this incident or try to contact the teacher, school or anyone associated with the school community for further comment?
- If industry experts are contacted for quotes, how credible are their thoughts if based on a selective presentation of material? Or were they previously following her on Twitter? Can their assessments be considered expert or even considered in light of such scant review?
- To paraphrase a question from Ollie (http://twitter.com/Tw1sty), your bio states that opinions and retweets are yours (with the implication they do not reflect your workplace). In light of that declaration and given you have a public profile, please explain how your personal views about rival publications are not work-related but the teacher’s protected Twitter account is ripe for public exposure and discussion on the Age’s web site?
- Please state how this morning’s article meets any standard of newsworthiness or public interest.
In recent weeks, we have seen that unpredictable tragedies can occur based on media activity. The media has weathered huge scandals that have threatened the trust and authority we previously granted. We criticise them for the trivialities they cover and the great swathes of information they ignore.
It is hard to determine how today’s piece balances that scale or does anything to further a discussion about the intricacies of online identity, public service and social media. This is no nuanced lecture from Levenson. It’s an article that points at a woman and, intentional or not, salaciously vilified her in front of others under the deceit of public interest, an interest that has since made her emotionally, professionally and, quite possibly, financially more vulnerable. All in the public interest. After a complaint from one person.
You might be asking yourself if I have done the same to Silva, held him to account and vilification, as he did the teacher. He may not have broken any laws, just like the teacher. Where are his rights in all of this? Below, I’ve highlighted some selections from the Age, Fairfax, AJA and Press Council’s code of conduct. Feel free to have a read and draw your own conclusions.
Fairfax Code of Conduct
As part of the Code’s introduction, the following (author’s selections) are asked:
Would I be proud of what I have done?
What would happen if my conduct was reported in a rival publication? (Author’s note: I won’t quote Silva’s public Twitter account here, but he is on record on what he thinks of the journalistic practices of rival publications.)
Do my actions place anyone’s health and safety at risk?
The Age Code of Conduct
12. People’s privacy should be respected and intrusions on privacy should be published only if there is a public interest.
13. Caution should be exercised about reporting and publishing identifying details, such as street names and numbers, that may enable others to intrude on the privacy or safety of people who have become the subject of media coverage. (Author’s note: the use of the photo, identifying the school name and quotes from the account made her instantly recognisable to people who were otherwise ignorant of the situation and made her identifiable)
14. People should be treated with sensitivity during periods of grief and trauma and wherever possible, be approached through an intermediary.
Media Alliance Code of Ethics
1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.
3. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
11. Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.
Australian Press Council, General Statement of Principle 1: Accurate, fair and balanced reporting
Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.
Australian Press Council, General Principle 4: Respect for privacy and sensibilities
News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.
Australian Press Council, General Principle 6: Transparent and fair presentation
Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.
Australian Press Council, Privacy Principle 1: Collection of personal information.
In gathering news, journalists should seek personal information only in the public interest. In doing so, journalists should not unduly intrude on the privacy of individuals and should show respect for the dignity and sensitivity of people encountered in the course of gathering news.
In accordance with Principle 5 of the Council’s Statement of Principles, news obtained by unfair or dishonest means should not be published unless there is an overriding public interest. Generally, journalists should identify themselves as such. However, journalists and photographers may at times need to operate surreptitiously to expose crime, significantly anti-social conduct, public deception or some other matter in the public interest.
Public figures necessarily sacrifice their right to privacy, where public scrutiny is in the public interest. However, public figures do not forfeit their right to privacy altogether. Intrusion into their right to privacy must be related to their public duties or activities.
How does the Press Council define Public Interest?
Note 1 “Public interest”
“For the purposes of these principles, “public interest” is defined as involving a matter capable of affecting the people at large so they might be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on, or what may happen to them or to others.”
Let’s think about that definition in conjunction with the article published by Silva. How were the contents of a private Twitter account, an account which had been already dealt with between a teacher (a private, not public, figure) and her employer, in the public interest?
Want to have your say?
Comments below will be open and unmoderated. I’ll take a leaf out of Silva’s book and not reply. If you would like to let Fairfax know your thoughts, be they supportive or constructively critical, you can head to their feedback area at the very bottom right hand corner of the Age web site.