Friday, January 18, 2008

Cutting Corners with Social Networking

In my last class with Professor Kennedy, we discussed why people are drawn to social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the list goes on. But then we transitioned to the advantages it can have for journalists whether it be as simple as finding contact information for sources or using these sites as a way to immerse themselves into the web culture. Social networking has put people at journalists' fingertips with a virtual directory of phone numbers, addresses, email and instant message user names.

But as Jennifer Woodard Maderazo from PBS's MediaShift points out, journalists' dependence on such sites can lead to some sloppy reporting. Accuracy and fact-checking are the basic and fundamental principals in which journalism is based on so how much trust can one put in social networking sites when there is so much room for error?

Woodward Maderazo focused on fake profiles and how easy it is to be fooled, using the multiple MySpace profiles of Bobby Banhart, the finalist from the trashy MTV-reality TV show, A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila as an example.

Despite the low-importance factor of Bobby Banhart, the example raises a critical issue when journalists cut corners by going straight to a person's profile instead of using it as a catapult to talk directly with the source. Woodward Maderazo pointed to the danger of fake profiles in the case of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Journalists lifted quotes from a Facebook page that was supposed to be his but turned out to be a fake.

Social networking sites are a great tool for journalists but there is a line that needs to be drawn. Use them to find information about sources and contact sources but never skip the important step of following through with the source. It seems like common sense but if journalists from mainstream media outlets like London's Evening Standard, Canada's Globe and Mail and Agence France Presse are making such a drastic error, perhaps it needs to be reiterated.

I myself have only dabbled briefly in using new media to find sources--mainly for a story I wrote in the fall of 2006 for a magazine writing course. Despite the sensitive topic (the barriers to healthcare that transgender people face), sites like Craig's List and LiveJournal were extremely resourceful when I was having such a hard time finding sources. While some were hesitant to talk, they were more than willing to point me in the right direction of people that were willing or to medical sources I could reach out to. I built this story from the ground up starting with just an idea and reaching out online resulted in finding great sources which I spoke with in person or on the phone. I know that without the use of social networking sites, I never would have been able to produce it.

So these sites are great tools but like every tool, they come with precautions. It's easy to cut those corners in such a fast-paced society that wants information at the speed of light but getting the information right is the first priority.

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