Using “Facebook” in Reporting
Facebook and other social networking sites – MySpace, LinkedIn, even Twitter — can be remarkably useful reporting tools, as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 proved. As we’ve discovered from the experts on our staff, Facebook pages often tell a lot about a person’s work, interests, friends, and thoughts, and, as one page leads or links to another, Facebook can help reporters do triangulation on difficult-to-research subjects. What people write on Facebook sites is publicly available information, like anything posted on any site that is not encrypted.
But there are a few things to be careful about, nonetheless.
One of them is that outsiders can read your Facebook page, and that personal blogs and “tweets” represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does. If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times’s political impartiality in reporting the news. Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you “joined” it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group.
Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times – don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill — whether it’s text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople. It can also include things posted by outside parties to your Facebook page, so keep an eye on what appears there. Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?
Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook “friends.” Can we write about someone who is a “friend?”
The answer depends on whether a “friend” is really a friend. In general, being a “friend” of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a “friend” is really a personal friend, it would.
Should we avoid consenting to be Facebook “friends” of people in the news we cover? Mostly no, but the answer can depend on the situation. A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a “friend” could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality. It would not have looked good in the presidential election campaign for a national political reporter to agree to be a “friend” of Barack Obama without first making sure to be a “friend” of John McCain, too. A City Hall reporter or a politics editor might be “friends” with several different City Council members as well as the Mayor, but not just with one of them. But a reporter or editor whose work has nothing to do with City Hall could be “friends” with people who work there with no conflict of interest. Consult with the Standards Editor if there’s any doubt.
Reporters can ask questions by e-mail using addresses found on Facebook, of course, but the same rules that apply to telephone contacts (or personal contacts) apply. “The Times treats news sources just as fairly and openly as it treats readers,” Ethical Journalism says. “We do not inquire pointlessly into someone’s personal life.” Approaching minors by e-mail or by telephone, or in person, to ask about their or their parents’ private lives or friends is a particularly sensitive area. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be advisable. In every case, reporters and editors should first consult with the Standards Editor before going ahead with such inquiries.