Facebook ‘friends’ create ethical issues for journalists

Facebook. It’s been lauded as the greatest communications medium since the telegraph and lambasted as a sign of the apocalypse. It certainly offers unprecedented access to the public lives of people around the globe. Love it or loathe it, Facebook continues to attract millions of new users, including journalists and the people they cover.

For reporters and editors, this raises an important ethical question: Does becoming “friends” on social media sites compromise the reporter-source relationship?

Before the advent of social media, journalists regularly disqualified themselves from writing about family and friends. Even the most ethical reporter might have trouble writing objectively about his or her friend’s arrest, for example, and readers might question the credibility of the reporter and the newspaper.

With social media, those relationship definitions become blurred. Is a Facebook “friend” truly a friend, or someone in the reporter’s universe with whom he has connected? Can she write objectively about these “friends?”

A Cape Cod Times reader recently raised this question by noting that a Times reporter is connected on Facebook to two Republican candidates for office. This relationship caused the reader to question the reporter’s ability to report fairly about these candidates and their opponents. The reader didn’t identify any specific bias in the reporter’s stories, only the perception of a conflict of interest.

The reporter explained that he understands how a reader might perceive a conflict, but believes that Facebook is a powerful communications tool, and nothing more. The two candidates “friended” him; he did not reach out to them. “There are no Democrats on my ‘friends’ list because no one who is a candidate has requested to be a ‘friend’,” the reporter said. “I would accept anyone who wants to put through a ‘friend’ request — Republican, Democrat or Independent.”

What’s important is that the reporter’s stories remain fair and free from bias, a standard both he and his editors at the Times uphold.

A review of the reporter’s stories on those two candidates and their opponents show no evidence of bias, and his Facebook postings are completely apolitical.

Neither the Dow Jones Local Media Group, which owns the Cape Cod Times, nor the Times has a policy regarding social media use, according to Times Editor Paul Pronovost, who also is connected to political figures — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — on Facebook.

Pronovost believes that simply being “friends” with someone in politics “does not automatically mean a reporter has stepped over an ethical line. As social media develop and become important communication networks, being a ‘friend’ often means nothing more than staying in touch with one’s beat. To that end, it is becoming basic reporting work.”

If he learned that a reporter was exclusive in his or her “friending,” Pronovost said he would examine those incidents on a case-by-case basis.

“While social media is a fairly new phenomenon, the rules are the same,” he added. “Much like a journalist can’t hold a sign for Scott Brown on the street corner, he or she can’t join a ‘Scott Brown for Senate’ Facebook group.”

Nationally, there is consensus that reporters and editors should avoid any behavior that might cause readers to question the credibility of the news organization. However, a very informal, unscientific poll of news organizations indicates little consensus about specific social media behavior.

— The Los Angeles Times, for example, is explicit: “If you “friend” a source or join a group on one side of a debate, do so with the other side as well.”

— The New York Times takes another tack: “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.”

— Joe Grimm of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, says, “Don’t ‘friend’ sources on your beat.”

— National Pubic Radio: “You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. … If you ‘friend’ or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint, when reasonable to do so.”

I take an admittedly prudish approach to Facebook. Not only do I avoid ‘friending’ writers and editors at the Times (the people I write about in this column), but I also avoid any political connections or posts. In my view, being a Facebook friend with a political figure, no matter how fair and ethical my reporting is, can imply endorsement to readers.

Readers rightfully expect Cape Cod Times reporters and editors to be above even the perception of conflict of interest. The Times should join the growing number of news organizations that are developing policies for the use of social media for all employees and to make those guidelines public.

This column was originally published in the Cape Cod Times on April 4, 2010.

Comments are closed.