When “Friending” Someone Crosses a Line

facebook_friend_requestThis week’s social media ethics class kicked off with a “hot button” topic: As journalists when is it appropriate to “friend” someone on Facebook for the purpose of news gathering or story telling? The example discussed had to do with a reporter contacting the friend of a murder suspect on Facebook. Should the reporter identify themselves as a reporter in the friend request or just send the friend request and see what happens?

As I pondered this question, I thought back to my days in a newsroom (just three short years ago) and how much has changed. I remember a time when we were not allowed to pull photos off of Facebook to use on air or not allowed to utilize information from Facebook as part of the news gathering process. Now, even though I don’t still work in a newsroom, a lot of my friends do and they, like many of us, use social media to get and deliver news. One of my friends who I recently saw on a story told me she had to immediately post an update to Facebook before she got back to the newsroom otherwise the news director would come down on her. Oh, how times have changed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

So, when thinking about this week’s topic, I considered when is “friending” someone crossing a line? I believe a reporter should always identify themselves as such. I mean if a reporter goes on an interview in person they should identify themselves. If they are conducting a phone interview they should identify themselves. Why would social media be different? It shouldn’t be. The ethical thing as a journalist is to always identify yourself.

computerwomanIf you’re still not convinced, think about how you are making this decision. What is your motivation? Are you trying to get to the truth, help more people from being harmed, informing the public of a situation? Or are you trying to win brownie points with your boss? If it’s the latter, you probably have some sole searching to do as a journalist because you also have to consider the effects of your decision. If you contact this person without identifying yourself, could it do more harm down the road? An immediate reaction from your boss may not outweigh the long-term of effects of your decision.

As a journalist you should work to not only report the facts, but do so in an ethical way. This is true for traditional journalism and the ever-changing digital/social world. Be ethical and be a great journalist. That’s simple enough, right?!?

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