Point-Counterpoint: Facebook

The Facebook dilemma for journalists:

Who really should be your “friend”?

Marcia’s View:  Assume it’s Public
By Marcia Franklin

I’m what is known as an “early majority” adopter – that is, I’m skittish to try a new product until the “innovators” and “early adopters” have proven its reliability and ease.

So I ignored the first requests from people to be their “friend” on Facebook. To me, Facebook was the equivalent of MySpace, and I had stumbled across enough MySpace pages to know they weren’t for me.

Then I wanted to contact a childhood friend and the only resource I could find was her Facebook page. So I joined, and watched with a mixture of amazement and horror as the program crawled through my email addresses to find out who else had a page. What had I done?

After I got over that invasive episode, I found — much to my surprise — that many people I knew were already “Facebooking,” and that I could reconnect with dozens of old friends.

I now check Facebook several times a day to find what’s going on in the community, share articles and videos, catch up with old friends and read news from media outlets. The platform is an ingenious way to broadly disseminate information to a discrete group of people.

The key word for me is “discrete.” As a journalist, I’m cautious about those I “friend.”  Many media entities are similarly concerned. Newspapers, including the Roanoke Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, have developed social media guidelines for their reporters.  (Check them out on the ASNE website, and Poynter Online also has a good article on the issue called “Everyday Ethics.”)

For me, it boils down to the old “sniff test.” If it’s already considered a conflict of interest for a journalist to socialize with a politician, what about potentially become close to one by reading about their daily lives on Facebook, and sharing details of your life? Would you be able to write a hard-hitting investigative piece on an official if, for example, you had been following all the ups and downs of her husband’s battle with cancer?

If the people you cover see your family photos, or read comments from others, ould that change the reporter/source dynamic?  There are privacy controls, but I’ve found them to be unreliable and time-consuming.

There’s also the issue of perception. An outsider has no way of knowing how close you are to your FB “friends,” and whether you hold their political or social views.

Early on, I briefly allowed a few local politicians who aren’t on my beat to “friend” me. But it nagged me. What if I wanted to have them on a TV program in the future?  In order to keep a professional distance, I “defriended” them.  To my knowledge, I’m no longer “friends” with anyone who’s in elected office or running for office.

None of this is a problem on the Facebook page for “Dialogue,” a program I host. It’s an entirely professional site, limited to information about the show. Anyone can become a fan, or follow the “Dialogue” Twitter feed. In turn, “Dialogue” follows diverse entities on Twitter, which is essentially a newsfeed, and which I think presents fewer ethical issues.

For my personal page, this is my middle ground:  I have “friended” a few public relations professionals and lobbyists. Some I knew as journalists before they took their jobs; some I knew from Press Club or other civic groups to which I belong. I don’t think it compromises my ability to write about their bosses or clients, and it’s a helpful way to find out about events and set up interviews.

Still, I watch carefully what I post to Facebook. I have fun; I enjoy sharing photos of family, friends and trips, and sharing articles and videos. But as with the rest of my life, I don’t make political statements or join campaigns. I don’t post politically partisan articles, and have removed overtly political comments from others on my posts.

There’s no black and white here. My accomplished colleague, Kevin Richert, will argue that the way to get around all the gray is to have no lines at all and to “friend” everyone. For editorial writers like Kevin, who are paid to have a point of view, I think that’s a fair choice.

But for those of us who are paid to stay as objective as possible, I would urge caution in what you post on your personal page and whom you “friend.”  Social media can be a great way to find stories, connect with sources and promote your own work. But assume anything you write is public — or one day could be.

Marcia Franklin has been a reporter, producer and host at Idaho Public Television since 1990. She is a former Idaho Press Club state board member and chapter president.

Kevin’s View:  ‘The pluses more than offset the downside’

By Kevin Richert

My Facebook “friends” list includes my mother, my teen-age sons, one of my college roommates, dozens of past and current newsroom colleagues and more than 15 elected officials.

It is an odd mix, a strange collision of the personal and the professional. But I think it can work. And I think that in this turbulent time for our industry, journalists should use social media to promote their work and connect with their audience.

I am by no means a social media expert. I’m as accidental a social media user as you’ll ever meet. I joined Facebook, reluctantly, on New Year’s Day, after my oldest son invited me to join. (I mean, when your kid reaches out like that, how do you say no?)

Soon after I got hooked on finding old classmates and playing Kidnap! And Bumper Stars, I quickly noticed just how many sources were also on the site. And it didn’t take long for me to see social media’s value to journalists:

  • Sometimes, social media furnishes great news tips. When Rep. Walt Minnick decided to vote against the first economic stimulus bill, I found out through a Facebook alert, posted by spokesman John Foster and sent to Minnick’s 1,000 or so “friends.” I was able to break the news on the blog, and start a good discussion at IdahoStatesman.com, hours before seeing a conventional press release.
  • It gives sources one more way to reach me – before I go to print. I’ve started posting Facebook and Twitter alerts about editorials I’m researching, and often get some useful perspective. By the same token, the Facebook and Twitter messaging functions give me one more way to reach a hard-to-find source.
  • Social media sites give journalists fascinating anecdotal insight into the political discourse. Who has a politico’s ear, and what are they whispering into it? And what are politicians saying about the issues? State Sen. Dean Cameron may be the most savvy Twitter user in Idaho Politics. Minnick has used Facebook to talk to his constituents about tough votes. As a journalist, I need access to these conversations.

To me, the pluses more than offset the downsides.

I understand why some journalists resist “befriending” elected officials, lobbyists and staffers: Listing any politico as a “friend” just feels awkward. (Why can’t we just be “contacts” or “obligatory acquaintances?”) And I’m uneasy about allowing movers and shakers to read 25 Random Facts About Kevin Richert or see my high school photos. Oh well.

I can also understand why some journalists are uneasy about the interactivity of social media.  Facebook and Twitter readers don’t want us to hide behind links to our stories. They take very seriously the “social” component of social media, and want a dialogue with journalists and an inside view of the news business.

I suspect this is the biggest hurdle for many of my news colleagues. An online conversation with readers is a daunting prospect – especially in a medium where every word has permanence, and where nuances can easily be misread.

The one advantage I have, as an opinion writer, is that I have more freedom to express a point of view and analyze the issues. I’m writing opinion pieces anyway, so I’m comfortable discussing opinions in social media.

I’ve decided to let everyone on my pages, with a few precautions. I’m xtremely careful about posting personal information (in an age of identity theft, that’s should be a no-brainer for us all). I post nothing on my Facebook wall that I’d be unwilling to write in a column (and if I want to talk privately with anyone, I use direct messaging). And I’ve gone out of my way to be consistent: I accept invitations from all sources and politicos, and try to reach out to as many sources as possible.

I think it’s made me a better-connected, better-informed journalist. Even if my Facebook “friends” can see what I looked like in high school.

Kevin Richert is editorial page editor of the Idaho Statesman, and vice president of the Idaho Press Club. He has an Idaho Statesman Opinion Page on Facebook, and is on Twitter @KevinRichert.