When Debra Bowen, California's secretary of state, sent Sacramento Bee columnist Stuart Leavenworth a friend request on Facebook, he was faced with a decision. If he accepted, would he have trouble keeping a professional distance from his source, or would he simply be trudging on the same trails reporters always have? Does becoming friends on social media sites change the reporter-source relationship?
Some journalists worry that accepting a source's friend request (or sending one to a source) may create the appearance of a conflict of interest, but most believe that being connected to a list of people, frequently by the weakest of threads, does not compromise their objectivity. In their view, the core tenets and responsibilities of a reporter to maintain credibility have not changed, even as the way we interact and communicate has. There is a big difference between a personal friend and a Facebook friend, but many are still cautious about befriending sources online.
"So far I've decided to keep them on the waitlist," Leavenworth says. "I just personally felt more comfortable keeping it somewhat limited. Part of it is journalistic. As a journalist in this town, I really wanted to keep a little bit of distance from public officials and other sources I deal with on a regular basis.
"But I also just felt strange about them having so much access to my personal information, since I like to have fun on Facebook. I like to post goofy photos and post goofy messages, and I'm not sure I want the secretary of state and the assembly speaker and others to be viewing those on a daily basis."
Dara Kam, a reporter in the state capital bureau of the Palm Beach Post, has accepted Friend requests from representatives and senators. Although she thinks Facebook "helps to blur the lines between socializing on a professional level and on a social level," she says she does "not feel ethically compromised at all."
Kam doesn't see any difference between the way she deals with her sources online and the way she interacts in person. But the informality of Facebook communication can make it easier to interact with sources. While talking with AJR for this story, a state senator sent Kam a Facebook message simply to touch base, which Kam thinks was a great example of one of social media's nuances.
"He never would have just e-mailed me or called me out of the blue," she says. "He probably saw me online and decided to message me. [Facebook] increases the level of interaction that journalists and sources have that they wouldn't normally have without the network. It's less formal."
Ari Shapiro, justice correspondent for National Public Radio, views interacting with sources on Facebook as simply a modern incarnation of the traditional reporter-source relationship. "I think that the question of whether you friend your sources is not all that different from the question of whether you invite your sources over for dinner or whether you hang out with a source on the weekend," he says. "There are always blurry lines about how close you get to your sources, and Facebook is just another version of that same line that has always existed."
As a journalist who covers controversial issues, "one kind of arbitrary rule that I implemented for my Facebook page is that if somebody's profile picture is a political logo or a photograph of a politician..I would not accept those friend requests," Shapiro says. "Even though I know it's not my profile, I don't want people to go onto my profile and see Mitt Romney or Obama 2008 or any of those things that could conceivably be interpreted as me endorsing a politician."
When they do friend their sources, he says, journalists must be more circumspect about what they add to their profiles. A good litmus test is to imagine if the information available on their profiles was printed on the front page of a newspaper. "Would you be embarrassed? Would you mind? Would it reflect poorly on you?"
Reporters have not received much in the way of managerial guidance on this subject, and there tend to be no established guidelines. When Facebook does come up in newsrooms, the talks and seminars are about the ethics of using information gleaned from social media sites in news stories rather than possible conflicts of interest from reporters' own accounts.
Craig Whitney, standards editor at the New York Times, explains: "Basically what it comes down to is we believe that being a friend on Facebook, and I speak as one who has a Facebook page, is essentially meaningless, and everybody knows that. So it's hard to imagine any real conflict of interest that could arise from your being a friend of somebody on Facebook and writing about that person."
Whitney's only guideline to reporters at the Times is that when Facebook prompts them to fill in their political views, they shouldn't answer. But other than that, reporters may use the site as they see fit. But like Shapiro and Kam, Whitney is clear that the rules for a reporter's conduct do not change, no matter the medium.
"If it is truly a friend, then the old guideline that you have a conflict of interest if you're writing about somebody who is a personal friend certainly applies," he says. "But being a friend on Facebook doesn't make that person into a real friend."