January 13, 2009
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As part of our new Virtual Poynter training, I spent an hour last week discussing social networks as a journalism tool with the journalists from The Roanoke Times. In that short time, the staff at the paper produced the skeleton of a guideline for journalists everywhere.

No one argued against using social networks in reporting stories and delivering them to the audience. It seems like everybody’s mom, dad and boss has joined Facebook, turning the site and its technology into something almost as common as e-mail and not just for the young and savvy, like Twitter sometimes seems.

In Roanoke, the journalists grouped the pressure points into three categories: How to use Facebook and MySpace as a reporting tool, how to use the sites as a promotional tool and finally, how to balance your personal and professional images.

As a reporting tool, it’s easy to argue that Facebook, MySpace and Twitter instantly connect journalists to stories that in the past would have taken days or weeks to surface. Last year, the Orlando Sentinel discovered a Facebook group devoted to the lack of water at the University of Central Florida’s brand new football stadium. The group provided immediate access to dozens of sources who’d experienced firsthand the opening game in 95-degree heat.

In Roanoke during the Virginia Tech shootings, the newsroom staff used Facebook and MySpace pages to help chronicle the lives of the slain and injured students. And later, a newsroom reporter discovered that the university president was battling cancer, thanks to the Facebook group “We support Paul Torgersen.”

But the journalists in Roanoke quickly pointed out that social networks have their challenges. It’s easy to deceive and make things up, so everything must be independently verified. If all your sources came from the Internet, they would skew toward the more affluent and educated. And when you interview people digitally, you miss a lot of good information.

When it comes to promoting your work, we all agreed it was a good method for getting stories out. But when we started to look at the journalists who use it in a provocative and edgy way on a regular basis, such as The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz or ESPN’s Jemele Hill, we recognized the need for some caution and best practices. Status updates are by their nature short, like a story tease. They should be catchy, even pithy, yet accurate. In the effort to simplify, it’s easy to go too far and mislead the audience. Good headline writers and television writers recognize this tension.

Balancing the personal and professional turned out to be the thorniest issue. Many of the journalists in Roanoke aim to keep their Facebook or MySpace pages completely private, used only for connecting with personal friends. For the folks whose names are out there, such as reporters and photographers, that might be a losing battle. Sources tend to find you and friend you. Rejecting them is awkward. Letting them in blurs the boundary between your private life and your work. Either way, the journalists in the workshop agreed that a social network is like your car or your front yard. Because you’re a journalist, you have to exercise restraint when it comes to making political statements and revealing your own biases.

Even if you keep your page completely private, you must assume it’s public and that people will use it to judge you and your newsroom. So all the guidelines that apply to putting bumper stickers on your car apply to your Facebook page.

Here are the guidelines as we developed them in Roanoke. It’s a work in progress. What would you add?

A newsroom guideline for using social networks: As a reporting tool

Social networks are ubiquitous enough that journalists who insist on avoiding them are likely to miss good opportunities and great stories. To that end, we encourage responsible use of such networks to form connections, find story ideas and locate sources.

  • Making connections is good. And journalists should ensure they are using a full array of tools for gathering information, including face-to-face interviews and shoe-leather reporting.
  • Journalists must compensate for the skew of online reporting. You are likely to find younger, whiter, more affluent sources online. Journalists should constantly strive for diverse representations in their stories.
  • Information gathered online should be independently confirmed offline. Interview sources in person or over the phone whenever possible. Verify claims and statements.
  • Ensure informed consent. It’s easy for sources to misunderstand your intentions. It is your responsibility to tell them who you are, what you are doing and where your work will run.
  • Take special consideration with children and other vulnerable people. When contacting children, make sure they connect you with a responsible adult.
  • Be transparent with the audience as well as sources. Let them know how you contacted people, in what context you gathered the information and how you verified it (or didn’t).

A newsroom guideline for using social networks: To promote work

It is important and valuable to promote our work through social networks. Individual staffers bear most of this burden. But the newsroom as an institution is responsible for some of this work. When promoting your work:

  • Be accurate. It’s easy to sensationalize or oversimplify.
  • Be clear. If you are not a good headline writer, seek some training.
  • Always include a link and make sure the link works.
  • For ongoing issues or stories, editors are responsible for crafting a quick strategy for promoting and branding our work.
  • Editors and online staff should identify work that should be branded and promoted on an institutional basis.

A newsroom guideline for using social networks: Balancing the personal and the professional

Some journalists use social networks as a professional tool. Others use it strictly as a personal endeavor. Still others blend the functions. It is increasingly difficult to keep your social networking page strictly private and personal. To that end, journalists must recognize that everything on their Facebook or MySpace pages has the potential to influence their reputations and by extension the credibility of their newsrooms.

  • Don’t post information that could embarrass you or your newsroom, even if you believe your page is private.
  • Use the tools, such as limited profiles and privacy settings, to restrict access to your most private information.
  • Recognize that your actions can be misinterpreted. You may sign up for a group to get story ideas, but people may see you as a fan. State your intentions often, in wall posts and other notifications. When appropriate, tell groups when you are signing up that you are looking for story ideas.
  • One strategy might be to sign up for lots of groups. If you become a fan of a political party, become a fan of the other parties as well.
  • Manage your friends and their comments. Delete comments and de-friend people who damage your reputation.
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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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