Facebook: Where’s The Line?

Check out this article by Pat Walters at the Poynter Institute, talking about Facebook and what’s in it for journalists. While Facebook is, itself, becoming the news (see here, here and here for just a couple of recent stories), Walters asks — what can the social networking site do to help journalists with ‘regular’ news stories?

I recently enjoyed a posting by Andrew Smith, discussing the uses of Facebook for PR professionals (and journalists by extension). Meanwhile, Walters refers to a great post on Jeff Jarvis’ blog, where he notes that local news is more about the people than the content.

Facebook is one of many sites that contributes to the localization of our news by bringing people together. If someone dies, you can ‘facebook’ them, find their friends and contact them. If you’re looking for background on someone, check out their profile. The question, in my mind, is and ethical one: where should we draw the line with this? How far should journalists dig into these social networks?

I think there are several sides to this question:

  1. People who post openly on Facebook know (or should) that this information is available to everyone. If they don’t want people to see or use their information, they can adjust their security settings to limit who can see what they post. The problem is that, as Alfred Hermida points out, users of sites like MySpace and Facebook don’t think about this. They consider their pages to be their personal space. How ethical is it to mine peoples’ friends lists for contacts for the purpose of journalism?
  2. Journalists will use Facebook because, as Walters points out, they can’t ignore it. To do so would be, well, poor journalism. Heck, recruiters look at it; why shouldn’t journalists?
  3. Can journalists really trust what’s on Facebook? Wikipedia learned the hard way that user-generated content can’t always be trusted, and Wikipedia entries can be corrected by anyone. When you look at Facebook, you’re looking at information generated by one person, and you might not even be looking at the right person.

I think in today’s media environment, journalists need all the help they can get. Sure, look at someone’s profile – they’ve put it up there. Look at their contacts – again, they’ve put their information up there. However, there’s a limit. Don’t trust it to provide information (unless backed-up) for your stories. It’s a social network, and I think that’s all it should be.

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