Journalists using Facebook as a reporting tool have likely faced some ethical questions about what is and isn’t appropriate — particularly when it comes to the information they post and the way they interact with sources on the site.
For some insight, I talked with several journalists — including The Wall Street Journal’s Liz Heron and Breaking News’ Lauren McCullough — for advice on how to avoid ethical issues on Facebook. Here are eight related tips.
Keep your audience’s trust in mind
When using social networks, journalists should keep this question top of mind: Could this action affect my audience’s trust in me?
“What matters is whether or not your audience feels it can trust you or not,” Anjali Mullany, social media editor at Fast Company, said in an email interview. “When it comes to trust, your audience’s opinions outweigh your opinion.”
This is why “friending” politicians on Facebook can be so problematic. As Mullany says, “If you are a political reporter or your beat (as many are) is influenced by politicians, and you are friends with a politician online or in real life, you better be prepared to explain that and be transparent about it. It doesn’t matter if you think honoring a friend request isn’t an endorsement.”
National Public Radio’s guidelines say that using Facebook in this way to monitor politicians is “as basic a tool as signing up to be on mailing lists used to be.” But NPR urges journalists to make sure they do not participate in any lobbying or advocacy so they can maintain that trust with the audience.
Ask your editor for feedback
Lauren McCullough, editorial supervisor of Breaking News, said there are often legitimate news-gathering reasons for “friending” a politician, “especially in state and local governments where candidates and politicians may not have public-facing pages and accounts.”
In an email interview, McCullough said this access can “help you stay on top of the politician’s official movements, and may also tip you off to more under-the-radar developments.”
But, she said there are risks for the journalist because these “friendships” could damage the appearance of their objectivity. Reporters, she said, should check with their editors before “initiating or accepting a friend request.”
Mullany agreed, saying: “Apply the same rules you would apply to the rest of your reporting. When in doubt, defer to your editor, as a publishing platform should not change the essence of your ethical philosophy.”
Make sure you follow the other guy/girl
Apart from checking with the editor, McCullough and Mullany both advise journalists to be impartial.
Reporters should always “friend” the politician’s opponent, McCullough said: “If a reader or source ever questioned your ‘friendship,’ you’ll want to point to other politicians you’re connected to as examples of your balanced newsgathering purpose.”
It’s the same across the Atlantic. Chris Hamilton, who famously parsed the BBC’s advice to one succinct sentence, “Don’t do anything stupid,” says reporters need to avoid giving the appearance of bias. “Make sure that you’re not following all Conservatives for example,” he said by phone.
This is a sensitive area for all the news organizations, and Hamilton said it often comes down to context. “The act of friending is “less significant than what you do with that relationship,” he said.
NPR keeps it simple. It advises staffers to “follow” or “friend” political parties and advocacy groups as long as they are doing it to “keep up on what that party or group is doing.” And, they say, reporters “should be following those on the other side of the issues as well.”
Cull your friend lists
The Radio Television Digital News Association’s social media guidelines suggests journalists cull their “friends” lists regularly to make sure they don’t appear one-sided.
RTDNA says, “You may believe that ‘online’ friends are different from other friends in your life, but the public may not always see it that way.” The organization advises journalists to avoid any conflicts with people who “become newsmakers.”
McCullough shared similar advice: “Review the ‘friendship’ with your editor regularly, to ensure the cost/benefit is still worth it,” she said.
Avoid interacting with politicians or sources on Facebook
McCullough also advises journalists to avoid interacting with the politician or source on Facebook.
“There are legitimate news-gathering reasons for ‘friending’ a politician, especially in state and local governments where candidates and politicians may not have public-facing pages and accounts,” she said.
But she suggests taking the conversation off Facebook and following up in person, or by phone or email, if the politician posts something that you’d like to learn more about.
“Taking the conversation away from Facebook will give you a better opportunity to ask questions without giving away your story,” McCullough said. “An off-site interview also may help you get valuable information that wouldn’t otherwise be shared on a personal profile.”
Use Facebook Lists to avoid Friend/Like/Subscribe issues
Markham Nolan, managing editor at Storyful, told me via Facebook that the terminology is often the problem.
He said the Storyful team “liked” the pages of activist groups on both sides of the conflicts in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen during the Arab Spring, along with “individual politicians and other groups of every political hue.” But, he said, they never considered the act of “liking” to be an endorsement of the page’s particular point of view. In fact, he considers the verb to be “often inappropriate,” partly because its meaning is so vague.
Mullaney said she wishes there were a greater definition of the term. “What does a ‘like’ mean on Facebook?,” she said. “To me, that may be considered an endorsement. On the other hand, liking a page better enables a reporter to receive updates from that page in their newsfeed. What I haven’t seen anyone or any organization do, but maybe it’s time to do, is put out a little explanation of what they believe their ‘like’ actions on Facebook mean.”
“(Lists) enables you to curate Pages and People around a specific topic without having to connect with them directly. So you could add politicians to an interest list without having to ‘like’ their pages. We’re seeing more journalists using this as a way to create a curated feed around topics they cover,” he said, via Facebook after a request for comment. (Here’s more on what journalists need to know about interest lists.)
McCullough advises that journalists limit access to their personal information “by putting them on a list and setting specific privacy settings that determine what they can and cannot see.” Of course, this also means untangling your privacy settings.
Accept that there is no privacy on Facebook
The RTDNA guidelines say: “When you work for a journalism organization, you represent that organization on and off the clock.”
The Washington Post’s guidelines say journalists’ social media accounts, whether personal or work-related, “reflect upon the reputation and credibility of The Washington Post’s newsroom” and that journalists must always protect their professional integrity.
Liz Heron, director of social media and engagement at The Wall Street Journal, said the Journal encourages staff to “Keep it professional,” everywhere, even on their personal Facebook page. “Confusing privacy settings and years of collecting Facebook friends may mean that your status updates have a wider reach than you realize,” she said via email. “Just don’t post anything that might call your journalistic credibility into question.”
This echoes Hamilton’s “Don’t be stupid,” advice. The BBC guidelines say this applies to personal use because a reporter’s groups of friends and contacts still view them as a BBC representative.
To this end, Hamilton says, it is “very important” that journalists don’t “reveal their political affiliation” in their social media profiles. (There are different schools of thought on this. Jeff Jarvis, for instance, has said that news organizations should reveal who their staffers voted for.
National Public Radio acknowledges that, “Regardless of how careful we are in trying to keep them separate, our professional lives and our personal lives overlap when we’re online.”
NPR advises staff to use the highest level of available privacy tools but says that the line between public and private has become so blurred by social media that even personal messages to friends and family can be “easily circulated beyond the intended audiences.”
The lesson for all of us is that nothing is private on the Web, and journalists are now subject to the same level of scrutiny as the people they report on.