There is no point at which it’s ok to use someone’s personal photo without their consent; unless they’re the subject of a news story, that is.
There are many grey areas in tabloid journalism. And by grey areas, I mean areas with no specific laws to stop lazy journalists taking shortcuts to sensationalised headlines.
In 2014 I was the subject of just such an article. The Daily Mail Online published an online story about me, based on information taken from a Documentary aired two days before. The story was inaccurate, based on quotes taken at random from the documentary. They chose to bolster the story with a range of pictures taken from my personal Facebook account, including both ‘selfies’ and images of me with my husband. I didn’t find out about the story until a friend sent me the link. The Daily Mail agreed to remove photos taken from my personal Facebook page and make changes to the biggest errors in the story, but spinoffs sent my image and the inaccuracies around the world in a multitude of languages.
I was very fortunate; due to my history and my knowledge of social media, I’ve always had strong privacy settings in place. The few photos that the Daily Mail was able to copy were only old profile pictures.
Not everyone who is central to a headline snatching news story is so lucky, however.
After the murder of 8 children in Cairns, Australia, multiple news sources violated the family’s request that no images of the children be shared until the family had finished their traditional mourning period. One major news source took a photo of the children off a relative’s personal Facebook account and used it in an article, resulting in a stern slap on the wrist from law enforcement.
The Daily Mail outdid itself, writing an article based around the personal Facebook updates made by a close family member, including screenshots of heart wrenching status updates which were used to create further headlines about how the family viewed the tragedy. The family member shut down her Facebook account shortly after the story was published.
Sandy Hook Tragedy
Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, over zealous journalists took the information that Ryan Lanza was the shooter and ran with it. They found his Facebook page, posted images taken from it and wrote stories, indicating that he was the shooter.
The only problem? It was another Ryan Lanza, who had no involvement in or knowledge of the shootings. The information was updated with the details of the real Ryan Lanza and the fact that it was in fact the second Ryan Lanza’s brother (Adam) who was the shooter. Unfortunately, the incorrect images of Ryan Lanza had already gone viral and come up in searches for him, to this day.
What Does Facebook Have to Say?
Facebook clearly states that:
You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings.
However Facebook goes on to say:
This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
In other words, if your content is stolen off Facebook, you have no recourse to them due to your own understanding and use of the privacy settings which enabled your content to get stolen.
Despite this, the underlying statement is clear: you maintain all copyright to anything you upload to Facebook. As the copyright holder, you have the legal right to pursue action against anyone who uses your online content without attribution or consent.
Is This Ethical?
Although there are no clear rules in place, most quality news outlets will source their own photos, talk to the people involved or take photos themselves.
Although cases such as Morel vs AFP/Getty have seen payouts for photos used from social media without consent, they’re far and few between. When photos or information are taken from social media, most victims of this theft are usually too busy dealing with their own news worthy complications, with no time or interest in pursuing any legal action. Unfortunately, until laws or legal cases stop them, many news outlets will take any image available online and use it, only worrying about possible consequences after getting their headline.