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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Found in (My)Space   

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are valuable sources of information for journalists.


By Jason Spencer
Jason Spencer (jasontspencer@gmail.com) is a reporter for the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina.     

Blogs and blurbs, pics and posts--the contents of a single MySpace page can offer many glimpses into someone's life.

These aren't just venues for hormone-driven kids or garage bands waiting to be discovered. All kinds of people--millions of potential news sources--are corralled into their own corner of the Web.

That's why journalists are finding that checking out MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites can pay big dividends.

Such sites allow people to post their likes, dislikes and heroes, their favorite books, movies and music, and journal-like blog entries about their lives. Users agree to acquire and be acquired as friends, instantly connecting to one another's networks. MySpace, which had more than 60 million unique visitors in August, has traditionally been the site of choice for high school students. Facebook (19 million unique visitors), which began at Harvard, has been the favorite of college students, although usage patterns may be changing.

As the popularity of these sites grows, so does their potential as virtual backgrounding tools. News researchers figure that if employers and police can use the sites to help do their jobs, why can't reporters?

Many journalists use such sites to track local men and women stationed in Iraq, although the Defense Department's decision earlier this year to restrict troops' access to MySpace and similar sites could hinder that in the future. But family and friends can (and do) maintain pages about their loved ones.

Most reporters don't troll MySpace looking for stories, but some have built it into their backgrounding routine, especially when it comes to pieces involving younger people. Sometimes, journalists get tips on pages that might be helpful in connection with a particular story.

And at times, reporters use social networking sites the way law enforcement officials might.

For example, a Boston Globe story this summer about the allure gangs hold for young people--particularly those with an older sibling in a gang--referenced the MySpace page of 21-year-old Gary Brown, who had been accused in the shooting death of two Georgia men. Brown's younger brothers, ages 7 and 12, regularly log on to his MySpace page to listen to his rap group, Soldiers Only Live Once. One paragraph illustrated the influence of older gang members on the next generation, as the story pointed out that the group is what the younger boys listen to on their front porch.

Other reporters have found that MySpace can be a resource in determining which gangs control what turf, and if shootings--based on "R.I.P." and other comments left online--are gang-related.

MySpace "absolutely adds to the story," says Donovan Slack, who wrote the Globe piece. "But it's not like it made the story... The Web site was part of these people's lives I was reporting on."

At the very least, that's what a social networking site can offer. Color. Details. Depth. A personal perspective--sometimes one from beyond the grave.

The MySpace crowd is comfortable posting personal thoughts on a Web page that is designed to be seen by a select group of friends but is, in reality, open to a much larger audience. "One of the things that social networking sites have brought is an understanding or acceptance, especially among younger folks, that they don't mind having this level of scrutiny," says Derek Willis, database editor for washingtonpost.com.

"Whether that's for their best interests or not in the long term, it remains to be seen. But they've shown themselves willing to throw open the doors at this point."

More and more reporters are opening those doors to take a quick virtual tour of the lives of the people they write about.

Meg Jones, a general assignment reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says she routinely checks MySpace pages for background information. In June, cowriting a story about a murder-suicide that left six people dead, Jones used the site's language in describing one of the victims as the "proud parent of a 'beautiful little girl and handsome little boy.'" At another point, Jones was working on a Memorial Day story about a local soldier who had been killed in Iraq. She was told by family members that a song the man had written was played during his funeral. Jones was able to pull lyrics from that song, which was about the chance he "might not come back," from his MySpace page.

"A lot of times, the people that we're writing about are not famous, are not well-known. They're just average people," Jones says. "Before you had the Internet, it was hard to find out a lot of the details about them. And now, that's provided for us."

A fellow reporter had given her the idea a year before. A local Navy corpsman was charged with killing an Iraqi civilian. One of Jones' colleagues was able to put together an illuminating profile of the corpsman, Melson Bacos--of whom his family had said little and the military even less--highlighting his high school wrestling career and quoting a personal message he had posted on his MySpace page: "I live for my family and their future."

The paper also pulled three photos from Bacos' MySpace page to run with the story, Jones says.

Slack worked on a piece that ultimately didn't run about a girl who committed suicide, in which the reporter quoted entries from the girl's MySpace blog. The blog "indicated suicidal thoughts," Slack says. "For me, it was a way to demonstrate her humanity, and what kind of girl she was, and really make her come alive in my report about her death."

The sites may change, but social networking is here to stay--and so is its place in a reporter's toolbox, says Brant Houston, the James L. Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism at the University of Illinois. "You're going to see investigative journalists in particular..take a look at these pages to see whatever kind of personal profile can be drawn from them. There's an opportunity there to learn more about a person."

But, he cautions, "You still have to follow the same checks. People may put something exaggerated on their MySpace pages. You still have follow-up to do. But it certainly builds the portfolio in understanding someone, who they are and what their interests are."

There are pitfalls, as some journalists have learned the hard way. Two Salt Lake Tribune reporters this summer put together an in-depth profile of a neo-Nazi named Curtis Allgier after he was accused of shooting a state corrections officer. Their story mentioned that Allgier described his hometown on his MySpace page as "White Nation."

The page turned out to be a hoax--perhaps put up by a fan or, more likely, as a joke.

The day the shooting occurred, "people started Googling Allgier instantly," says Peg McEntee, the paper's assistant managing editor for news and business. "We got it from at least two sources in the newsroom that this was out there, and we went ahead and put it in the story. Then when we got the call from the Anti-Defamation League, we said, 'OK, we're through with this.' It was called into question..and then the site was taken down almost instantly."

The Tribune didn't run a correction or clarification because there was no way of determining who put up the page, Tribune reporter Pamela Manson wrote in an e-mail. The paper has not mentioned the MySpace page in any of its numerous follow-up stories, she added.

The Anti-Defamation League tracks white supremacists and keeps an archive of MySpace pages associated with them, says Mark Pitcavage, the group's director of investigative research. When Pitcavage first saw Allgier's MySpace page--a Tribune reporter faxed him a printout after it was taken down--he knew it was a fake.

Allgier had become infamous in the Salt Lake City area months before for a lesser offense. At the time, his mugshot--tattoos cover his face--was widely distributed by news services, and he was soon caught. But the picture took on a life of its own and started appearing on various Web sites. Nothing in Allgier's profile indicated he had created it himself--it had few or no comments, photos or friends. Through a MySpace friend's site, you can tell if your subject is active by any posts he or she might leave. But those were missing, too, Pitcavage says.

Across the country, outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina, reporter Kevin Maurer of the Fayetteville Observer had better luck than the Tribune reporters when he found "a gold mine" of information about Joffre Cross, a paratrooper accused of stealing military equipment and selling it. Maurer not only noted in his story the racist rants on Cross' page and the Nazi officers included on Cross' list of heroes, he also used the site to e-mail some of Cross' friends and arrange phone interviews.

Pitcavage had seen Cross' site a few months before. "If you see that profile, you know immediately it's legitimate, because it has sort of a virtual archaeological record to it, which dates back well before the time in which the person became notorious," he says. "Before this person was arrested, nobody would have a reason to create a fake MySpace profile about them. The fact that this had been active for so long, with people leaving comments and him leaving comments on other people's pages well before he was arrested..it's a sign it was real."

So while the technology is different, the basic rules of journalism apply. "We've got all the same issues," says Houston, a former director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. "I know we're talking about MySpace. But we're talking about openness, we're talking about government supervision, we're talking about potential misuse of it by journalists. The ethics we haven't brought up is that MySpace pages will sometimes have personal information, the kind that you might come across in a court document. Even though it's totally public, or potentially open to the public, it might be of such sensitivity that you don't want to be the journalist who promulgates it because it has nothing to do with the story. Those types of issues are being discussed daily in every newsroom. And so they're going to end up being discussed about MySpace."

A quick checklist for journalists using networking sites in their reporting, straight from the experts: Double-check everything. Always cite the page. Keep in mind the information on a person's social networking page is self-selected--and that "facts" on such pages aren't necessarily solid. Don't be surprised to find angry children creating false sites about a teacher they don't like, or angry adults doing the same about a politician they disagree with (though sometimes the bogus sites themselves can be stories).

"Never rely on MySpace without the attempt to do a full interview," says John Martin, a senior news researcher at the St. Petersburg Times. "It's dirty data. You don't know what's factual and what's not. But the fact that it's dirty is no excuse to not use it."

Martin recalls a story about a group of high school students who robbed a Tampa cell phone store. One of them was a well-known football player. The teens put a photograph and video of the backpack and gun they used to rob the store on their MySpace pages, as if they were taunting law enforcement officers. As the story developed, the Times had an "in" the paper might not have had otherwise. It's just one example of how social networking sites are becoming routine items on a researcher's checklist.

"We traditionally go to high school yearbooks after a tragedy involving a student," Martin says. "We still do that, but we're starting to go to MySpace first."

And, if nothing else, the cell phone fiasco shows that the last thing on at least some of today's MySpace users' minds is the local newspaper. In other words, there shouldn't be any fear of backlash. Yet.

"I don't think [journalists] are really in their crosshairs," Martin says. "There's a level of narcissism among some people who use it. They want to be noticed."

Another guideline for journalists: Don't be afraid to be creative.

While every presidential candidate worth his or her bandwidth has a MySpace page--even though they're maintained by someone else--some are using the technology more effectively than others. Long-shot Republican candidate Ron Paul, for instance, has developed a huge Internet following, even though he's far behind his rivals in the polls.

When Paul, a Texas congressman, visited New Mexico this summer, Albuquerque Tribune reporter Michael Gisick compared the number of Paul's MySpace friends with those of other presidential candidates. As of June 25, Gisick found, Paul had 36,441 MySpace friends, less than 2,000 fewer than Sen. John McCain, and was "gaining fast" on the Arizona Republican. Gisick's story said that "the imperfect measurements of Internet popularity show [Paul] has enjoyed burgeoning success."

"It's a little inexact, because you're polling this certain segment of society," Gisick says. "It would be like if you did a poll and you only called people under 35. That's probably an overgeneralization, but not too much of one.... It's inexact. But at the same time, when you have a lot of buzz around somebody, or a lot of people tapping into whatever they have going on online, it is a fair measure of the fact that they do have some support from somewhere."

Perhaps the best-known example of Facebook's and MySpace's value for journalists took place in April after the massacre at Virginia Tech, when the campus paper, the Collegiate Times, assigned two reporters to mine social networking sites--a smart move, evidenced when the school newspaper posted the first list of victims at 4 a.m. the day after the shootings (see Drop Cap, June/July).

That shows how a site such as MySpace "enables a paper of any particular size to level the playing field a little bit," says Willis of washingtonpost.com. "Larger papers sent a number of people there, but if you know a way into the community, whether that's physically into the community or virtually into the community, then sometimes that can pay off no matter how many people you have or don't have."

Willis maintains that online social networking is here to stay: Some people might grow out of it, but others won't. And every day, more people join. So far, most of the people thinking about the journalistic implications of MySpace or Facebook can be found on college campuses, whether they're students or professors, he says. But that is likely to change.

"This is not at our doorstep, but it's coming," Willis says. "As people live more of their lives online--and that won't be everyone, but it will be a certain segment--then Facebook or MySpace or other pages become a part of their record of their life. It's something where, if you can measure it or collect it and analyze it, then you can get some insight into how they live their lives. That's something newspapers are intensely interested in. And I'm really looking forward to what will be possible to do in the years ahead with this kind of information."