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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Treat social networks like any source: with measured skepticism

A few big names got caught out not long ago using quotes from a Facebook profile purported to belong to Benazir Bhutto's son. The profile was a fake, although it turns out her son did have a profile but clearly one which reporters didn't stumble upon.

Subsequently, AFP has banned its reporters using either Facebook or Wikipedia as 'sole sources' and requiring additional, trusted, sources to be used corroboratively.

That should have gone without saying. Reporters should never use a single source. Even trustworthy sources are worth checking. After all, sometimes it's the discrepancy in view between trusted sources that turns out to be the story.

There's no reason reporters can't use Facebook, Bebo and Wikipedia as starting points for ideas, trends, information, sentiment and sources of potential interviewees. But they should double-check any information they come across on wikis and social networking sites. This is not rocket science. It's standard journalistic practice. Get on the phone, and check your biographical dictionaries, electoral rolls and so on.

The best way to prevent being duped is to know your beat - no change there. If you understand what your sources are talking about, you quickly get a sense when something's not quite right.

I know reporters don't always have the luxury of knowing their beat. I know you can often be thrown into story after story with little lead-in time, no specialist knowledge and a looming deadline. The answer then is to use common sense, check your sources, and talk to your editor.

That means, of course, that editors need to understand social networks. If they don't, they will be incapable of properly weighing the importance of stories and unable to direct reporters. I'll be honest, I've seen a few cringeworthy stories in recent times which showed loud and clear that the newsdesk didn't understand them.

I'll get off my soapbox now and finish with a few tips. I blogged recently about Telegraph Communities Editor Shane Richmond's ideas on how to minimise the chance of getting tripped up by fakes. (I gather the Telegraph did get tripped up by the Bhutto profile but I'm confident it wasn't Shane doing the reporting). You can read them here.

And Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, associate editor of PBS's Mediashift blog, writes a great set of guidelines on how she uses Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in her researching and writing, along with the pitfalls to watch out for. It's a worthwhile read.