“Sorry” is indeed the hardest word: Facebook faux pas leads to apology

A number of British news organisations have been forced to apologise and pay damages to a woman after wrongly reporting that her daughter’s 16th birthday got out of hand because people turned up to her house after the event was promoted on the girls’ Facebook page.

As Nelson would say: “Ha ha!”

The case was covered in the Guardian a few days ago:

David Price, of London law firm David Price Solicitors and Advocates, told Judge Charles Gray at the high court in London today that Amanda Hudson had been “extremely shocked and distressed” by the false picture that had been painted of her daughter Jodie’s birthday party in Marbella, Spain.

Allegations that the party had got out of hand first appeared across the national and international press in May last year, with claims that the house in Marbella had been “trashed” or “destroyed” by gatecrashers.

However, Price told the high court today that “only very minor damage was caused” and that Jodie had promoted the party on social networking website Bebo – not Facebook. [Oliver Luft, Newspapers sorry for 'Facebook party' story]

I’ve been concerned for some time about journalists free and easy use of Facebook as  a source, but it seems that in this case the news media concerned didn’t even do any basic fact-checking. It supports my argument that using Facebook is basically a lazy way to get a story, particularly if you’re just taking stuff from the site, or not checking when someone tells you something was “on Facebook”.

If we’re going to use social networks as a journalistic tool, I think we need to have a much more rigorous debate about it. Not just assume that the technology “can” and therefore we “should”.

To be honest, I’m not that impressed by the arguments being raised in favour of journalists making greater use of Facebook. I think that in some cases the advocates are blinded by the excitment of the technology and forget about the real processes of journalism.

A note of caution is sounded by Josh Wolff blogging at Media Sphere:

t’s clear that Facebook is a hot site right now, but is it just the latest and greatest in a continuing evolution of social networking Web sites in which the previous incarnation is quickly forgotten? It’s hard to say, but with the continuous release of new Facebook applications it seems like Facebook’s role in our online lives can continue to evolve as well. I’ve known people who only use Facebook for messaging and have abandoned e-mail entirely so it’s anyone’s guess what things will look like in the future. [Josh Wolff, Facebook and Journalism]

This seems to me to be a sensible “wait and see” position. Facebook can be valuable for promoting your own work – I use it this way for Ethical Martini and sometimes get hits from the feed I send to my F/b page.

Liz Losh at VirtualPolitik seems to echo my own complaints about shoddy journalists relying on Facebook and basically (in my words) plundering content for their news stories. Like me, Liz is particularly upset at the way this is done in gruesome murder cases. she makes a good point that it looks like news cobbled together in the same way students cobble together essays from Wikipedia. I’m not sure then if we shouldn’t make a case that it’s a mild form of plagiarism.

I’d like to take a moment to complain about a phenomenon that I’ll call “Facebook Journalism” (or “MySpace Journalism”) in which newspapers cobble together accounts, particularly involving crime stories, from data contained on the parties’ profiles on social networking sites.

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. [Liz Losh, Facebook Journalism]

I wrote in similar terms recently. [Be careful what you sign up for]

The debate started about to years ago (2007), when Facebook became more “public”. One of the first blogs to consider how journalists might use Facebook was at Poynter – a young journo called Pat Walters wrote about his own use of Facebook.

Last summer, while I was covering higher education for a newspaper in Delaware, a student died in her dormitory. I went on Facebook, looked up some of her friends and even wrote a story about how her wall had become a make-shift memorial.

It also makes us consider an important ethical concern. How should we interact with sources on Facebook, a place on which we house our personal online identity and through which we interact with our friends and family? Other group members raised this question directly. One asked, “Should we Facebook friend our sources?” Another, “Should journalists support politicians on Facebook?” [Pat Walters, Facebook: What's in it for journalists?]

This is interesting, because if you read the New York Times ethics guidelines (linked from my Be careful… post) you will see that the debate has not moved on much from this rather shallow discourse.  The deeper ethical implications and fault lines are not even considered.

I don’t want to appear a curmudgeon on this issue. As a journalism educator I’m all for new tools and methods and new ways of engaging people with content that can impact on their lives. This is what journalism is about – making a difference. My worry is that by focusing on social networks and “virtual” platforms, we don’t encourage reporters to get out onto the street and really interact with people.

There’s also the verification issue. How do you know who you’re talking to an Facebook if it’s not someone you know in real life? Even then there have been times when people have established fraudulent identities.

This grab fromKelly Wilson’s  AJR piece outlines the concerns:

Even some of the Facebook users in Walters’ group have reservations about the site. Washington Post copy editor Phillip Blanchard used the group to express his concern that the increased ease of communication brings an increased potential for fraud. “Facebook is great for ‘social networking’ but not terribly useful as a journalistic tool,” he said in a post on the group’s wall. “People aren’t always who they seem to be. For example, you can’t even be sure who I am… Verification is very important in journalism, which apparently is being forgotten a lot, or never learned.”

In an e-mail interview, he added: “Facebook is amusing and fun for millions of people, and journalists are people. I set up a profile purely for amusement. I don’t see any role for Facebook in our work lives, because on Facebook, like everywhere on the Internet, you never know who wrote what you see and whether it is true.” [Kelly Wilson, In your Facebook]

The “Walter’s group” referred to here is a Facebook group “Journalists and Facebook”, but to be honest, it’s not that active, even though it has over 12000 members. Most discussion board topics have only one or two entries and it doesn’t appear that much of a conversation is going on.

To test my hypothesis I posted a new topic, I’ll report back if it generates much interest.

For me there’s little wisdom in crowds – as the Facebook vigilante episode suggests – and there’s a danger in surrendering journalism to technological determinism.

Sorry, the machine made me say that.

4 Responses to “Sorry” is indeed the hardest word: Facebook faux pas leads to apology

  1. Russell says:

    I think the blurring between disciplined journalism and blogging – as papers fold around us – is going to bring many examples of such “lazy” journalism … thanks for this insightful post.

  2. sylviagiles says:

    Laziness aside, as a journalist that has made a point of NOT having a facebook… am I disadvantaged? That is a concern (albeit minor) for me.

    Laziness besides, journalists were already on something of a path to laziness BEFORE facebook. Eg, rewording a press release. The movement towards blogs, I think, is in part because newspapers were not delivering. Newspapers need to pull finger, instead of just downsizing.

    Does that bring me full circle? Hardly… I’m off topic, sorry!

  3. [...] this trend and wrote about The Witches of Facebook at the beginning of last year and also other media outlets using social media as a way of humiliating subjects. What we’re now seeing is the uptake of this trend by bloggers such as Whaleoil who builds a [...]

  4. [...] written before about gratuitous invasions of Facebook privacy by gawking media vultures. This is a classic case of [...]

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