Facebook Friend or 4th Estate?

Knoxville’s old media are still figuring out the new social etiquette

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Here’s the situation: You are the managing editor of a weekly paper in a medium-sized Tennessee city. Like many people of your age group—you are, let’s say, 40—you were at some point in the past few years lured, cajoled, or otherwise coerced into joining a large online social network. After a few weeks or months of wondering what the hell you were supposed to do with the thing, you eventually caught on to the Facebook flow and incorporated it into your regular Web browsing habits.

Along the way, of course, you started accumulating “friends.” At first, they really were friends, or relatives, or friends of friends or relatives. And then at some point they started being people you’d never heard of who appeared to be friends—or “friends”—of people you’d already friended. (By this point, you’re using “friend” as a verb without any sense of irony or deprecation.)

And then, one day, you get a friend request from somebody you do actually know, professionally, and have known for years—somebody you know a good deal better than many of the people on your “Friends” list. But there’s a small complication: This person is gearing up to run for mayor of your medium-sized Tennessee city. And you, in all likelihood, will be covering the mayoral election. Is it okay to be Facebook-friends with her? Or will it somehow appear to put you in a compromising position, journalistically speaking?

Needless to say, this is not the kind of thing that was covered in journalism school when you graduated 20 years ago. And a consultation with your editor doesn’t help much—not only is he not sure whether the paper or its parent company even has a social media policy, it turns out that he himself is already Facebook-friends with the likely-candidate in question. (She lives in his neighborhood.)

You can see how this gets complicated.

So how do Knoxville’s assorted media outlets deal with the whole social-media phenomenon, with its odd intersections of the personal and professional, its intimations (or imitations) of intimacy, its tendency to blur the lines between reporter, reported-on, and reported-to?

Sort of haphazardly, as it turns out. Like Metro Pulse, few of the news operations around town have official policies about how editorial staffers should or should not engage with social media. They tend to encourage its use, but not require it. And they basically tell reporters, editors, and on-air personalities to use common sense in deciding who to friend and what to post for the world (or a portion of it) to see.

“We’re putting our toe in the water just like everyone else,” says Bill Shory, news director for WBIR, Channel 10. “So far, we’re not trying to mandate anything. Social media only works if someone’s committed to being social on there. It only works if it’s updated regularly.”

None of the members of WBIR’s evening news team appear to have a Facebook page (at least not under their own name), though some other staffers do: Abby Ham, Erin Donovan, even the venerable Bill Williams. Shory has one, too, though he conceals his friends list. He says he discourages his employees from friending him, to avoid mixing too much their personal and professional lives. But he does monitor what information on their pages is available for public view.

“We had one issue where one reporter had a bunch of pictures she didn’t realize were public,” he says. They showed scenes of high-spirited hijinks that could cast her and the station in a bad light. “I told her, you’ve got to take it down, or you’ve got to take it down where neither I nor anyone else can see it.”

As for who is appropriate “friend” material for a reporter or anchor, Shory says it makes sense to friend local newsmakers, if only to keep track of them. At the same time, he knows it could lead to appearances of favoritism if a reporter were friends with one candidate in a race and not another.

“The politicians one is tough,” he adds, “because some of these people are our personal friends.”

The overlapping social and professional circles of journalism, government, and public relations are a fact of life in most places, one that predates the online media world. (Case in point: 15 years ago, I worked alongside Randy Kenner and Dave Keim in the News Sentinel newsroom, and consider both of them personal friends. They are also Facebook friends of mine. But Randy is now a spokesman for Mayor Bill Haslam, and Dave is now public affairs director at Y-12 in Oak Ridge, roles that could put us at odds.) In that sense, Facebook might just make more visible relationships that already exist. But the visibility itself could fuel speculation or suspicion about which outlets or reporters favor which candidates or causes.

At the News Sentinel, multimedia editor Jack Lail says the newsroom is waiting on a corporate social media policy from E.W. Scripps, the paper’s parent company (which also owns Metro Pulse). In the meantime, he writes in an e-mail, “We have had two pizza lunches with the newsroom in the last couple of months where this issue and a range of social media issues were discussed. As you might expect, there are a variety of views. I think the consensus from those meetings is that the easiest way to cover sources on Facebook is to ‘friend’ them so their news feed will appear in your feed. We do not feel that ‘friending’ a person on Facebook means you are a personal friend of the person, particularly public personas. It doesn’t mean you endorse them, or like them, or have ever met or spoken to them. It’s the way in which Facebook allows you to monitor another person’s news.”

Still, he says, “If one of our reporters feels uncomfortable about friending someone, that’s fine, don’t do it.”

WATE anchor Gene Patterson says that he decided early on the best way to avoid accusations of bias was to have an open-friend policy. “I friend anybody who asks,” he says. “At this point, it hasn’t gotten me in trouble.”

But it has gotten him a lot of friends—1,523 at last count. And it has necessarily turned his Facebook page into an extension of his public persona. He posts very little personal content on it, and nothing that could be construed as editorial commentary. “I’m very, very reticent to do that,” he says. “There are some journalists I notice who are very comfortable putting out opinions about things, and I have a problem with that.”

He notes that several of his colleagues maintain two Facebook accounts, one to interact with the general public and another one under a different name known only to actual friends and family. But he says Facebook has often been useful as a news-gathering tool. After the shootings at Parkwest Medical Center earlier this year, he scanned his Facebook news feed and discovered that one of his “friends” (someone he didn’t really know) knew some of the people involved. “As a consequence, I had access to their personal photos,” he says. “It becomes that kind of resource.”

Elizabeth Hendrickson, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media, says she’s seen a major change in attitude toward social media among journalists and media scholars. Where a few years ago there was skepticism and defensiveness, she says, “I feel like we’re kind of at a turning point where people are figuring out how to use it to their benefit.”

She notes that academics are starting to talk about an emerging “Fifth Estate” of social media, to complement the “Fourth Estate” role played by the traditional press. “The danger in where we are is making sure the people in journalism schools and the public in general understand the difference between the two,” she says.

Which brings us back to the situation posed at the top. In this case, the decision was made to politely decline the candidate’s friending. But if that changes, all of the candidates in the race will be given equal opportunity to connect with the managing editor in question. After all, what’s a little politics between friends? m

Good ‘Friends’

Which politicians and prominent newsmakers are making what media friends on Facebook? These are some of the connections we were able to find on Facebook from publicly visible friend lists.

Madeline Rogero, director, city Community Development Department; mayoral candidate

Friends with:

Coury Turczyn (Metro Pulse editor)

Gene Patterson (WATE anchor)

Jack Lail (News Sentinel multimedia editor)

Scott Barker (News Sentinel editorial page coordinator)

Tim Burchett, Knox County Mayor

Friends with:

Betty Bean (Shopper News, Metro Pulse reporter)

Gene Patterson (WATE)

Jack Lail (News Sentinel)

Jack McElroy, News Sentinel editor

Friends with:

Chris Woodhull

Duane Grieve

Finnbarr Saunders

Jamie Woodson

Jim Clayton

Chris Woodhull, Knoxville City Councilmember

Friends with:

Coury Turczyn (Metro Pulse)

Jesse Fox Mayshark (Metro Pulse)

Gene Patterson (WATE)

Jack Lail (News Sentinel)

Jack McElroy (News Sentinel)

Matthew Everett (Metro Pulse)

Scott Barker (News Sentinel)

Bill Lyons, city’s Senior Director, Department of Policy & Communications

Friends with:

Betty Bean (Shopper News, Metro Pulse)

Jesse Fox Mayshark (Metro Pulse)

Gene Patterson (WATE)

Jack Lail (News Sentinel)

Scott Barker (News Sentinel)

State Sen. Jamie Woodson, 6th District

Friends with:

Betty Bean (Shopper News, Metro Pulse)

Gene Patterson (WATE)

Jack McElroy (News Sentinel)

Abby Ham (WBIR)

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

cturczyn writes:

in response to Number9:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

These are all publicly visible Friends lists, as the story states.

Coury, ed.

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