Many New Zealanders willingly share things on social media but reckon broadcasters should have their permission to run with it, the Broadcasting Standards Authority has found. Is that realistic now that so much is shared online so widely by so many?
Megan Walton, 27, was sentenced to 12 months' supervision this month for racially abusing a Muslim woman in Huntly this year.
That outcome was barely reported in the news but the incident itself was all over the media when it happened because the victim had uploaded her cellphone video of the confrontation to YouTube. The media couldn't resist running the images. They were, after all, out there for all the world to see on the world’s most popular video sharing platform.
These days - on any given day - there are plenty of stories in the news featuring stuff sourced from the social media accounts of individuals.
Some people invite the media to use their content, but media outlets also often lift things from social media accounts without the consent - or even the knowledge - of the people who have put them there. To complicate the issue, news media outlets also now rely on those same social media platforms to distribute their own content to the vast audiences out there online.
Sometimes unexpected exposure in the news can do real damage. The news media didn’t hold back on social media accounts of the so-called 'Christchurch sex romp' in 2015.
The broadcasting watchdog - The Broadcasting Standards Authority - says it has had an increasing number of complaints about the use of social media content in broadcasting.
"We became concerned that there may be a double standard at play. Are broadcasters held to a higher standard by the public when it comes to republishing social media content?" asked Broadcasting Standards Authority chair Dr Peter Radich.
That’s a question the BSA sought to answer in a recent research report called: The Use of Social Media Content in Broadcasting.
The study consulted broadcasters and eight focus groups around New Zealand. It looked at four case studies including the 2015 'sex romp' and a recent complaint upheld by the BSA over a TV news report on a fatal crash involving a visiting school band from Tonga. The item featured hospital photos of some of the injured passengers sourced from a public Facebook page for the Tongan community.
"New Zealanders are savvy about social media. They accept it is part of the public highway and maybe it is fair game," BSA chief executive Belinda Moffat told RNZ.
"But when they think about their own social media content they don't want it used in that way even if it is in a public setting," she said.
The BSA report found people "see the media as having greater power than individuals and they should be restricted in what they publish".
That is not surprising.
In 2006 - when social media was just getting going - a BSA study called Real Media; Real People found broadcasters and their audiences were far apart on what's fair and acceptable.
More than half of those surveyed reckoned people should even get an advance screening of their broadcast appearance. Only one-third of those surveyed said if someone is interviewed on the street, the broadcaster could take this as permission to actually broadcast the interview.
The broadcasters - for their part - said these expectations were unrealistic.
The BSA’s new report released this week proposes media outlets treat social media like any other source in that they first seek permission to republish.
But is that realistic in an age when interesting stuff online is almost certain to spread far and wide on social media anyway - and the news media don't want to be left behind?
"The public perceive broadcasters as having more credibility than bloggers or the rest of us online," said Dr Kathleen Kuehn from Victoria University of Wellington, the co-author of the BSA research.
Dr Keuhn - who previously examined the media here for an international book called “Scandal in the Digital Age”- said New Zealanders use of social media is "often quite intimate and personal".
"The grey area for us is the content that has only become public because one of the users in someone's social network has an open account, and it leaks out," Dr Keuhn told Mediawatch.
"That's why it's so jarring and unexpected for people to see personal content republished by broadcasters," she said.
So what is the policy - and the practice - of our major news broadcasters?
"We attempt to get permission, but to be honest I don't know how widely understood that's been in our newsroom," said Hal Crawford, the chief news officer at MediaWorks.
"Although we have strict policies, this issue is something we need to do more work on," he told Mediawatch.
Hal Crawford was formerly a news executive at digital news outlet NineMSN in Australia. His book All Your Friends Like This is all about the growing role of social media in news.
"Where I come from, my kneejerk is: if it's public, we're going to take it and use it," he said.
"There's a moral imperative for information to be free. That's how we roll and attitudes are evolving," he said.
"We have guidelines in our news handbook," says John Gillespie, head of news and current affairs at TVNZ.
"We will go to those involved and get permission," he said.
Gillespie says he does not believe there is a groundswell of public concern about broadcasters' use of people's social media content.
He also insists TVNZ news did nothing wrong when it broadcast images of patients after the fatal Christmas Eve bus crash involving the visiting school band from Tonga. The images were sourced from a Facebook page for members of the Tongan community.
"We asked the leader of the group if we could use those shots because we knew they were circulating on social media. We followed our own protocols and guidelines and eight months later the community is still fine with that," John Gillespie told Mediawatch.
"Nice is not always best," Crawford insists. There are cases where pictures make or break a broadcast story, he said.
"The access to images can dictate whether it becomes news. It's important that things that are real get reported. Anything we can use to assist with those stories, that's advantageous. We're not here always to make people feel happy. We are constantly up against this idea that we need permission to publish. We don't."
"We hold ourselves to a high standard already."
"We have worked through a mountain of complaints ourselves (at TVNZ) over the years. We don't need the BSA to feel sorry for us about being held to a higher standard," he said.