Facebook groups have become “an assignment desk” for reporters looking for stories online.

By Krista Simpson

For the reporter, Facebook serves a multitude of purposes. It is a place to search for people, to find story ideas and to publicize content.

But while the site is both valuable and convenient, reporters still need to hold to journalistic standards of verification and integrity, even when using it in creative new ways.

Gavin Adamson, undergraduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism, describes Facebook as “one of the critical parts of the toolbox,” not only as a distribution method, but as a way to connect with the audience.

“You would be remiss to not use it,” Adamson said. “You’ll lose out on stories. You’ll miss out on covering your beat.”

Earlier this year, CBC Toronto created the group “Toronto Housing Woes – CBC Toronto”  as part of the “No Fixed Address” feature. Shannon Martin opened the series with a personal piece about becoming a 32-year-old ‘couch surfer’ after facing a rent hike of nearly $1,000 a month. She said the series “started with an idea,” but its trajectory has been fueled by what is discussed in the group.

Martin said one of the early criticisms of “No Fixed Address” was that it focused on tenants. Landlords began posting on the Facebook page. “That helped drive the conversation,” Martin said, and those landlords were invited to take part in a subsequent piece.

While the group has become a place to find voices for stories, Martin said it is just a starting point. Even though a media organization clearly runs it, she said she doesn’t just use posts, but rather connects with the poster directly and in most cases still interviews face-to-face. “I was just introduced to them through Facebook,” she explained.

Such secondary steps of sourcing should also apply when Facebook is used in other ways. Jason Chapman, the executive producer at AM640, said the site is a place to find original content, especially given limited newsroom resources. “Facebook groups have become the sort of assignment desk for all of us. They are the eyes and ears that because of cuts we don’t have any more.”

To that end, Chapman joins community and parenting groups, using his Facebook profile where he identifies himself as a radio producer. He said he has “an agreement with myself” that before using material from one of those groups, he contacts the poster directly, as well as anyone else mentioned in the post. He said while working as a talk radio producer a couple of years ago, he skipped that step, learning “a hard lesson.”

Chapman said it had to do with a post from a parenting group with about 13,000 members. As he recalls, “it said, ‘Hey, my husband wants to go to bed, I’m not ready, he said I have to. What should I do?’” The following day, he used the post in a talk radio segment. The woman’s first name was mentioned.

Shortly after the segment went to air, Chapman said another message was posted to the group. “Because in the past I’d reached out on this group as a producer from the radio station… somebody called me out and said, ‘Hey, Jason Chapman from the radio station, what say you about doing this on the air?’

There was an explosion of angry comments from group members that Chapman estimates numbered in the hundreds. Even though the group was a large one and arguably not particularly private, he said, “I knew that I had made a judgment error in not contacting the poster, not writing, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m going to do something on this,’ or completely changing her name.”

Chapman said content, pictures or video found on Facebook require further verification and permission. He said the site “feels like a news source in so many ways, but ultimately it is not a news source. It’s just good old-fashioned ‘man on the street.’”

Western University professor of journalism and CAJ ethics committee chair Meredith Levine uses the same comparison. What if a reporter walked up to someone in a public place, did not identify their vocation, had a conversation with that person and then published it? “That person could quite rightly—we’re not talking law here, we’re talking ethics—feel duped, deceived and even manipulated, because they thought they were just having a conversation with a nice person on the street.”

Levine said reporters who want to keep their personal life separate should set up a professional Facebook page that clearly identifies their vocation and media outlet. “I know it’s complicated and it’s easier said than done, but if you’re using (Facebook) as a research tool, a communication tool as a reporter, then you need to be identified as a reporter,” she said. She added that she herself has two separate accounts: a personal one for friends and family, and a professional one for working with her journalism students.

Levine said there may be rare cases when it is appropriate for a reporter to use Facebook to do covert research on a matter in the public interest. But she and others agree those instances will be few and far between.

The rest of the time, when it comes to using the site, “I think the more honest you are about who you are and what you’re doing, the better off you are,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Dvorkin said this is particularly important at a time when the credibility of the media is being questioned. “I think if we’re going to regain the trust of the public, we have to treat the public as partners, not as people to be manipulated.”

Krista Simpson is a videographer and producer at CTV Kitchener, currently on maternity leave. Born and raised in the greater Toronto area, she has a Bachelor of Arts degree from York University and a Masters of Journalism from Ryerson University. She is particularly interested in journalism ethics and the changes facing newsrooms. You can find her on Twitter at @KristaSimpson.