Social networking and the NYT – be careful what you sign-up for

Thanks to Poynter Online for posting the New York Times guidelines for reporters using social networking sites as a journalistic tool.

The first guideline is about politics or controversial groups and flagging your own political beliefs

If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times’s political impartiality in reporting the news. Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you “joined” it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group.

This kind of defeats the purpose of being on Facebook. Surely one of the benefits is being able to “meet” with like-minded people and to share your views. Also, if you don’t join a group, how are you going to find out what its members are thinking and doing?

I think this could lead to problems of another ethical variety — reporters using an alias to join controversial groups and not disclosing that they are working for a news organisation and then using material in the paper or in their journalistic work.

The constraints that the Times puts around its staff use of social networking seem a little overbearing. At the sme time they don’t seem to take into account the real journalistic abuses of Facebook and the other sites.

Take this rule for example. I’ve quoted it in full because there’s a lot here to take in:

Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times –­ don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill — whether it’s text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople. It can also include things posted by outside parties to your Facebook page, so keep an eye on what appears there. Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?

The whole point of a blog, or personal comments on a Facebook page is to editorialize. It’s the same with sharing news items via Digg etc. You want people to know what you think of them and to share. The level of paranoia here is remarkable. It seems that if you sign-on to work for the New York Times, you’re giving up some very important personal rights.

In fact, you might say that this is the total antithesis of citizen journalism. It is journalists who are non-citizens.

Of course, we all have to be careful about what we write in cyberspace – hopefully it reaches a bigger audience than if we stood on a street corner handing out pamphlets – but anyone can misconstrue comments and take them out of context, whether they’re on the Times op-ed pages or on Twitter.

And, as for keeping an eye on what other people write on your Facebook page. If you’ve got dribblejaws hazing you then you’ve got the wrong sort of friends. Trying to make Times reporters take responsibility for what others write about them (even jokingly) on their social network sites is way beyond what might hold up in a court of law.

The next one is also an interesting exercise is “squirmology”. When is a friend not a friend?

Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook “friends.” Can we write about someone who is a “friend?”

The answer depends on whether a “friend” is really a friend. 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. But if a “friend” is really a personal friend, it would.

There are millions of people who would disagree that being Facebook friends with someone is “almost meaningless”. And what does “almost” mean in this context? It’s either real, or it’s meaningless. This “rule” finally ends up justifying the slash and burn approach to friends (let’s call them “contacts”) made through Facebook. Why does the rule about this have to differ from real journalistic contacts?

There’s no mention here of confidentiality. What about treating stuff you learn on Facebook as “off-the-record”? if a real friend tells you something that you might think is newsworthy enough to report would you do it without asking their permission? Would you do it by dropping them in the shit with an employer or lover, etc?

Probably not, if you have any ethical boundaries at all. Why should information gleaned through social networking be treated differently?

The whole tone of this missive from the NYT seems to be about protecting the paper from embarrassment, not about ethical reporting standards. Take this “hypothetical”, it’s absurd.

A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a “friend” could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality. It would not have looked good in the presidential election campaign for a national political reporter to agree to be a “friend” of Barack Obama without first making sure to be a “friend” of John McCain, too. A City Hall reporter or a politics editor might be “friends” with several different City Council members as well as the Mayor, but not just with one of them. But a reporter or editor whose work has nothing to do with City Hall could be “friends” with people who work there with no conflict of interest. Consult with the Standards Editor if there’s any doubt.

So, there’s professional “friends” and then there’s “friends”. I’m sitting here shaking my head and screwing up my eyes trying to sort out the logic in this position. It feels like a very mercenary policy — plunder social networks for whatever you can, but don’t use them for their intended purpose, which is…(drum roll pls) social networking.

And finally, what to make of this:

Approaching minors by e-mail or by telephone, or in person, to ask about their or their parents’ private lives or friends is a particularly sensitive area. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be advisable.

Under what circumstances would it be advisable? None that I can think of.

I’m also suitably gob-smacked that this policy says nothing about the most common journalistic abuse of social networking, the plundering of personal information about people caught up in tragic circumstances. The list of examples of news organisations using Facebook, MySpace and YouTube material without authorisation of the copyright holder to illustrate stories of tragic drownings, murders etc is growing daily.

A cursory scan shows a number of stories where people have been embarrassed by information leaked from their Facebook profiles.

Caroline GuilianiMiss New JerseyMurder victim opened her heart on Facebook

That last one is particularly shitty. The young woman, Sophie Elliott, was repeatedly stabbed in a frenzied attack by an ex-boyfriend.

In June last year, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, banned his staff from having Facebook pages. I’m shaking my head again, this is too too Big Brother-ish for me.

STAFFERS working in Prime Minister Mr Kevin Rudd’s office and on his household staff have been asked to take down their Facebook websites.

The request follows the publication at the weekend of pictures posted on Facebook that were taken by Mr Rudd’s executive assistant Mr John Fisher while he was travelling overseas with the Prime Minister.


Of course Barrack Obama made all his potential staffers list their social networking affiliations and had them screened by some security bods. This is creepy in the extreme and shows how surveillance is an intrinsic part of social networking. It’s the dark side of Web2.0.

I use Facebook, I keep in touch with former students, overseas relatives, old friends and colleagues and I also use it to “tweet” my blog posts. But it would never occur to me to exploit these online friends – I consider most of them real and I’ve actually met and know 230 out of 233 of them – they should be able to expect my trust and respect. Perhaps it’s naive to think that I have theirs, but most of the time we play by the rules.

Footnote: If you’re wondering how to get started on Facebook and using it as a news tool, Gina Chen has posted some useufl tips at Save the Media.

6 Responses to Social networking and the NYT – be careful what you sign-up for

  1. Imogen says:

    When I was researching mainstream news media’s use of Facebook I came across a number of people who complained that somehow they’d become ‘friends’ with the NY Times and yet they had no idea how.

    What’s more, they said they didn’t even rate the NY Times enough to want to be included as a Facebook friend.

    None of them could find a way to ditch their ‘friend’ status either.

    So there’s definitely a paradox there – haven’t decided exactly what it is yet but something to do with exploiting everything people put out there but expecting anything we (being media types) put out there, in the same space, to be essentially invisible. Or treated as such.

    Or something.

  2. […] written previously on the booming practice of news organisations plundering Facebook and other social networking sites for images and copy. It’s an insidious practice that […]

  3. […] Do journalists have the right to download and copy images and text from “our” Facebook pages to illustrate a story they’re writing? I would argue that they don’t, the response is usually “Well, it’s public information, so we can.” [Social networking and the NYT] […]

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

  5. […] down in the age of social media – another digital dialectic. I wrote recently about how the New York Times code for engagement with social media attempts to keep this barrier […]

  6. […] other point to bring up here is that many established media outlets have guidelines dictating social media behavior for their journalists, including being careful of what groups and pages you join and which stories you post when. I wrote […]

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