Facebook privacy settings: opportunity or challenge for journalism?

Are you a 21st century journalist? If yes, than you most probably feel at ease while surfing in the Internet universe to report on Twitter or on your Facebook page. And for sure you are aware of the fact that journalism is not the same anymore: the power of Internet and the explosion in social media have a great impact on the way journalists work, search for news and chase scoops and exclusive interviews. Social networks happen to be a new source for telling stories. If in the past, the media would have turned to family or friends to find personal information of people, nowadays the growth of social networking sites as Facebook has made it much easier to get the necessary details. Moreover, it`s digital, so it is easy to copy and replicate across the web.


Indeed, social media is becoming a part of the toolkit of some reporters. Digital Journalism Study 2011 found that more than 35 percent of respondents said they used Facebook to source new story angles:

Thus, Facebook seems to be a great source to find new undiscovered stories, ideas and eyewitnesses. It`s very often that news stories around the world are breaking first on platforms like Twitter or Facebook.

Moreover, with time the nature of Facebook privacy settings changes in a way that its users have less privacy. While Facebook’s new settings seem to be a betrayal of trust between the networking site and its users, the use of these new policies can be a surprising advantage for journalists searching for scoop. Let`s see what was private on Facebook before and what is private now:

If we study more in detail The Facebook Privacy Policy, it clearly disclaims responsibility for breaches of privacy of its users. The social networking site places the responsibility for privacy firmly on their users by allowing users to determine who can see what information they list on their profile. The Internet blurred the lines between public and private, and allowed journalists to easily access personal data of users on Facebook.Digital media scholar and journalism educator Alfred Hermida said about social networks: “This content is both private and public at the same time. It is private in the sense that it was intended for a specific audience of friends. But it is also publicly available online. This is a new ethical area for journalists.”


The issue that becomes more and more important: So if almost all this personal information is available on Facebook, what is private then?

The UK Press Complaints Commission (The PCC) has released findings of its research concerning attitudes toward social networking and privacy issue. It found that 78% would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media.
Surprisingly, it appears that still few people think about the personal details they publish online:

Challenge as well…

The use of Facebook is not only the opportunity to search for new stories, but it also represents a new ethical issue for journalists. What are the limits in using personal information published online? Some events covered by media can show us that the need to ask these questions becomes a necessity in our digital age. The Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 can be an example of a real digital door-stepping.Many reporters trawled Facebook for people affected by the tragedy to search for exclusive details online.

This search for news and exclusive stories on the social networking sites throws up many issues about journalism ethics in a digital age. It also raises questions about a notion of privacy. What information can journalists publish and report on?

Clearly, there is a need to reassess journalism ethics in the age when the meaning of private and public is increasingly blurred online. Obviously, journalists should take into account the context in which personal information and photos are published in social media. Many media organizations have already established rules concerning the use by journalists of personal information on social networks. For instance, the BBC Editorial Policy Board set out editorial guidelines in terms of use of personal photos: “The ease of availability of a picture does not remove our responsibility to assess the sensitivities in using it. Simply because material may have been put into the public domain may not always give the media the right to exploit its existence”.

Indeed, even if journalists are reporting on social media content that is in the public domain, there are situations where private information retains its private nature, even after it has entered the public domain. There are other questions that journalists should ask themselves before publishing:
Is there a public interest to publish personal information?
Is it valid information, can we trust it?
Does the material breaches any other laws, particularly defamation or copyright laws?

The limits between private and public online being blurred, there is a big challenge for journalism of 21st century in terms of ethical behavior.

What do you think about this issue? What would you publish or not if you use Facebook as a source for your story? And would you do it? Facebook, could it be a journalistic tool for you?

  1. #1 by Linear Fix on December 19, 2011 - 09:21

    Definitely social media is having a massive impact on journalism. In the coverage of a story about a student who was caught in an overseas legal case, the newspaper used profile pictures from Facebook and asked for comments from their friends, via Facebook.

    Where do these journalists draw the line? Is it okay to contact students for comment in a story via a public profile or should Facebook be subject to stronger law.

    Nice blog and good luck with your journalism degrees.

  2. #2 by evgeniyakolpakova on December 19, 2011 - 20:58

    Thank you very much for your comment!
    Using Facebook as a source for photos or information is definately a deontological question that every journalist should think about. Obviously, in the era of digital revolution and Internet a new set of rules should be introduced to draw the line you are talking about.

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