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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Social Networking Sites

The pros & cons of trolling the internet for sources

Khristopher J. Brooks

Her assignment was simple.

Kelechi Ubozoh needed to gather students’ reaction after University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was Tasered by campus police while questioning Sen. John Kerry. The New York-based reporter could have spent days traveling from campus to campus asking questions, but she had another idea.

Instead, Ubozoh, a reporter for a chain of weekly newspapers in Westchester County, posted a note on her Facebook page asking students to comment about the Sept. 17 incident.

“I also asked for their contact information because, even though I used Facebook, I do feel like it’ll make you lazy,” she said of using the social networking Web site to gather sources. “I was in a bind because I needed people ASAP, and I couldn’t just get to all those colleges. Facebook was the quickest way to talk to people.”

Ubozoh said she got immediate responses after her post from about a half dozen people. In the end, she used three people in the published story.

“I got the story done in a day, so it was a lot quicker,” she said.

With so many people posting detailed information on those sites, reporters across the nation are creating their own profiles, searching the databases and finding sources.

But despite their advantages, online social networks also create ethical issues, including: Should a person’s profile content be considered public information? And is it fair to solicit users’ comments after finding them on a social networking site?

Another issue is whether it’s fair to use someone’s profile information in a story.

Jan Leach, director of the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access at Kent State University, says no.

“I like to equate a MySpace or Facebook page with information from a telephone book, and you wouldn’t use that,” Leach said. “You should consider it a place to go for sources and a jumping-off point, but I don’t think you should use information straight off MySpace.”

Leach suggests using profile information to identify sources, and then try to contact that person for comment.

“I think they’re really good tools that help you find sources, just like documentation at a courthouse,” Leach said.

Social Networking Sources

In August 2003, Thomas Anderson and Chris DeWolfe helped create MySpace.com, which has become the largest online social network in America, boasting more than 200 million users worldwide.

MySpace allows users with a working e-mail address to post pictures, video and intimate information about their lives — including hobbies, political affiliation, marital status and even annual income — on their MySpace page.

About a year after MySpace began, Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes created Facebook and launched it from their Harvard University dorm room.

Facebook was originally intended for the university crowd because potential users needed a college-administered e-mail address to register. But the creators opened Facebook to anyone with a valid e-mail account in September 2006.

By that time, MySpace had captured 106 million users and been bought by News Corp. the year before for a reported $580 million.

Much like MySpace, Facebook lets users create their own profile and decorate it with facts, photos and other personal information.

It’s this type of information that allows journalists to effortlessly find specific sources.

“You can easily sort through people who have a specific interest,” Leach said. “The benefit is that it’s all right there for you.”

Leach said online social networks are gold mines for finding sources. Still, reporters should talk to their editor about searching a site for interviewees.

“You don’t know if that’s the actual person who posted the information, so I think transparency is really important,” she added.

Tom Mullen, a journalism ethics and newsroom management expert at the University of Richmond, said journalists have the right to use profile information that has been made public.

“If people are putting public information about themselves on their profile, then I think it’s fair game,” Mullen said. “I think they’re a good starting point, but I wouldn’t say use something without checking it.”

Mullen and Leach agree that journalists have the right to use profile information that has been made public, but they say complaints could still arise because some users don’t understand that their information could be used by the media.

“Very young kids have MySpace accounts, and I don’t know if they think, ‘Will my information be public and possibly used in a mass audience medium?’” Leach said.

Mullen added: “Not everyone who puts a profile together intends it to be for public consumption.”

Reporters should be allowed to use profile information, Mullen says, but not “without having a significant conversation with your editor saying what this information is, if it was properly obtained and did you do whatever you could to make sure it was accurate.”

Gaining Traction

Journalism industry observers have already commented on the impact social networking Web sites will have on reporting, including New York University’s Jay Rosen and Columbia University’s Sree Sreenivasan. They describe how the sites have helped reporters in the past, while also declaring the sites’ growing importance and popularity among the 18-to-24-year-old audience.

It would behoove journalists to embrace online social networking — and fast, they said.

“These sites, which help connect friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, have grown in popularity in certain demographics (teens, college students, young professionals, singles, married-but-looking, etc.) over the last couple of years,” Sreenivasan wrote for the Poynter Institute in late 2005. “Sites such as Friendster, LinkedIn, Yahoo 360, Orkut, MySpace, etc., use the concept of ‘trusted’ friends or acquaintances — i.e., connecting people only to those who want to be connected and doing so only by connecting friends of friends.”

With scholars noting these online social networks, many news organizations must now take notice and discuss how — or whether — the sites could become part of the newsgathering process. And while news organizations determine what’s acceptable, a growing number of journalists are already capitalizing on the mountains of information and sources.

Take Lawrence Mower, higher education reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, for example.

Mower used Facebook in November 2006 to find a student who started a party group at UNLV. Mower says the student had a cell phone number listed on his Facebook page, which enabled Mower to contact the student. Despite this success story, however, he prefers the old-fashioned method of reporting.

“I don’t have anything against using (Facebook), but I haven’t been real successful in getting people I want,” Mower said. “I find that I’m better going up to people.”

Dan Galindo, crime reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, used MySpace in February 2007 to get background on a group of party promoters who locals felt were responsible for violence at a local nightclub.

“We had gotten quite a few phone calls about whether the party promoters had an unsafe track record,” Galindo said.

While on MySpace, Galindo found online versions of posters from past parties that the promoters put on a profile page. He then matched the dates on the posters with crime reports.

“What we found is that they threw 10 parties, and the police were called to two,” he said.

Galindo and Mower’s examples, along with Ubozoh’s, are true examples of how those sites are changing the way journalists find sources of information.

“If you’re not familiar with them and how to use it, I think you’re really short-changing yourself on what you could find,” Galindo said.

Khristopher J. Brooks can be reached at

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