Scouring the Media

Facebook as a source of information.

Posted on: November 2, 2010

Journalists have started to use Facebook as a valuable resource, and they’re right in doing so. Because millions of people using the social networking site, millions of personal statuses and great amounts of information are available for the public’s digestion. For journalists, the idea of someone in the news having a Facebook is exciting. Facebook measured 500 active users in July of 2010, so chances are, if there’s a suspect in any journalist’s story, they have a Facebook. This public diary of statuses and moods is often put on display by journalists to give audiences an idea of who the suspect was and what he or she was interested in.

Not only is Facebook invaluable for leads, but it’s also a great place for networking. Groups like Help a Reporter, or HARO, have made the process of finding sources easier said Mashable’s Leah Betancourt, who described the Facebook group in her article “The Journalist’s Guide to Facebook.” According to the group’s Facebook page, its is “[to] heal the rift between journalists and publicists, to allow journalists to find the sources they need, while allowing sources to reach journalists in a SPAM-free, socially connected way.”

Help a Reporter, or HARO, started on Facebook in 2008.

Jane E. Kirtley, Professor of Media Ethics and Law and director of the Silha Center at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota offered some advice through an email interview with Betancourt.

“Verify, verify, verify. Facebook is a great source for story ideas, but no news story should be solely-sourced through social media,” Kirtley wrote to Betancourt. “Seek corroboration. And if at all possible, interview the person either by phone or face-to-face. It is so easy to lie on the Internet, and to misrepresent oneself. No journalist wants to spread falsehoods or be taken in by a hoax.”

Elizabeth Losh, a director of academic programs at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in her blog about the trouble with using Facebook as a source of information for articles, “in which newspapers cobble together accounts, particularly involving crime stories, from data contained on the parties’ profiles on social networking sites,” she wrote.

“My own Los Angeles Times, to which I have a strong sentimental attachment as a local, has become increasingly reliant on this practice, perhaps as a response to cost-cutting measures or perhaps as a salacious tactic to seem to be sharing hidden knowledge with nonmembers from exclusive communities involved with new digital practices. Many of these articles are the journalistic equivalent of the papers I see from unmotivated students that are mostly made up of Wikipedia entries. ”

Facebook is still gaining popularity, and while it may be an ethical issue for journalists to go combing through the social site for leads, it’s each journalist’s choice to make. Facebook is a powerful tool that offers some story leads as well as other opportunities to personally network with other professionals in the industry. But with the potential of fake accounts, falsehoods or hoaxes, journalists take a risk in using Facebook as a reliable source.

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