Social Networking and News

For the past few weeks, I've been attending a series of staff roundtable discussions -- dubbed "iSalon" (or "Innovation Salon") -- that we have each Monday at the Spokesman-Review. This week, we discussed the changing landscape in the news industry, especially in regard to current restructuring at the newspaper. This was mostly in relation to Project for Excellence in Journalism study and a conference that our Editor (in chief), Steve Smith, attended last week.

Some major topics discussed included the variety of modern distribution platforms -- print, online, mobile phone, radio -- and the use of online communities and social media to extend the idea of journalism providing a public service to the community. (We've discussed the duality between "journalism as a product" and "journalism as a service" many times. I'll definitely write something on this some other time.)

That's all speculation, though. Another thing that happened today brings up an important question: What role do existing social networks and social media tools play in journalism?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch linked to a slain firefighter's Facebook profile, leading to a deluge of criticism.

The arguments of whether Facebook classifies as a "legitimate source" or not, are moot. The stories and coverage regarding his death don't source Facebook outside of mentions of mourning and a photograph taken from his profile. From my own browsing through the Post-Dispatch site and reading through the stories, I don't believe they used the Facebook profile as coverage, as some claimed. This is not what I'm here to discuss or argue.

There are plentiful complaints that linking to the Facebook profile is disrespectful and that directing the public to view a "personal profile" is tasteless.

However, several comments to that Editor's Note remind me of something that college professors often remind students of: a public profile is public. It is legitimate (though some may say underhanded) for an employer to browse Facebook and make decisions on your character based on the information and photographs there. (Underage drinking, anyone?) The advice often amounts to, if you're making this public, then make sure it represents you, the way you want to be seen.

My point of view in this situation, as a person who occasionally dabbles in street photography is this: if it's in public view -- if you can get to it without jumping any hoops or trespassing on private property or otherwise breaking the law -- it's legitimate to mention. If the public can get to it, then it is within the rights of the news media to reference it.

A link to the man's Facebook profile and a link to a memorial Facebook group -- to me, this says, "this is who he was, and this is where mourners and well-wishers can leave a message for friends and family." I don't feel that this is in bad taste. I feel that this helps interested parties connect with others in a useful way -- isn't that part of journalism's mission to keep the community connected and informed?

So long as the coverage does not source Facebook as a primary source and so long as the Facebook profile and group links represent a way for the community to get in touch, I honestly don't see a problem with this.