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Nov. 23 2009 - 1:04 pm | 116 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

How I use Facebook for reporting (And what I won’t do)

Facebook, Inc.

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Facebook is a gold mine for journalists and investigators.

A journalism school student recently interviewed me about how I use Facebook for reporting. I told her I use it a lot. In my work for the legal blog Above The Law, I use it to…

Contact sources and send media inquiries. It’s often the easiest way to get in touch with someone when I’m writing a story. Many a lawyer and law student has gotten a Facebook message from me with the subject line, “Media inquiry from Above The Law.”

Reconstruct events. When I wrote about Brian Schroeder, the Harvard Law grad who set fire to the 9/11 chapel in New York City on Halloween, I checked his Facebook page to see his status updates on the day leading up to his setting the fire. There, I discovered status updates about his getting ready to go out drinking, as well as a link to his Flickr account where he had taken photos of himself in a soccer hooligan costume.

Get a person’s bio. Even those with high privacy settings usually reveal their school and work affiliations on Facebook. This can be used to quickly craft a biography for someone you’re reporting on.

Find a person’s friends. I’ve not used Facebook this way, but when a tragedy occurs involving a young person, reporters will mine the friends list of that person’s Facebook account for sources. When NYU junior Andrew Williamson-Noble committed suicide, reporters at the New York Daily News wrote about any clues to be found on his Facebook page, and likely reached out to the friends who had written on his wall.

Keep in touch with sources and readers. People interested in the topics I write about often friend me. I love that.


Things I don’t do, after the jump.

I don’t…

Use photos from Facebook accounts. Using people’s Facebook photos is a big n0-no for the social networking site. It’s a violation of the Terms of Service, and the site will ban you for doing it.

Falsely friend people. In my reporting, I always respect a person’s privacy settings. I don’t try to get around privacy settings by friending someone.


Reporters are certainly not the only ones using Facebook for investigations. Lawyers, insurance agents and law enforcement are increasingly using Facebook as a resource.

A Canadian woman recently lost her sick pay after an insurance investigator found photos of her on Facebook partying at a strip club.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported she was diagnosed with major depression and was receiving monthly sick-leave benefits. But when a Manulife insurance agentdiscovered pictures of Blanchard having a good time, the payments dried up.

Blanchard said she was told by Manulife that the photos of her at a Chippendales bar show, at her birthday party and on vacation were evidence that she is no longer depressed.

via Woman loses benefits over Facebook pics – Weird news- msnbc.com.

(Hat tip: Lewis Dvorkin.)

As noted by fellow True/Slanter Sara Libby, Facebook isn’t always incriminating when it comes to investigations. For one New York teenager, a status update was used in his defense:

The message on Rodney Bradford’s Facebook page, posted at 11:49 a.m. on Oct. 17, asked where his pancakes were. The words were typed from a computer in his father’s apartment in Harlem.

At the time, the sentence, written in street slang, was just another navel-gazing, cryptic Facebook status update — meaningless to anyone besides Mr. Bradford. But when Mr. Bradford, 19, was arrested the next day as a suspect in a robbery at the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, where he lives, the words took on greater importance. They became his alibi.

via With Facebook as Alibi, Brooklyn Robbery Charge Is Dropped – NYTimes.com.


As mentioned above, I use Facebook to keep in touch with readers. If you’re among them, feel free to friend me.


2 Total Comments
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    It’s amazing to me how Facebook has evolved into such a crucial tool for journalists. When I was editor of USC’s Daily Trojan, we broke what became a big national news story of a student accused of giving birth, and leaving the baby in a trash can. We were horrified when bigger news outlets started showing screen shots of the girl’s Facebook profile on news broadcasts. At that time, your profile was still considered relatively private, and only available to your friends. How things have changed!

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    About Me

    I am a writer, reporter, editor and blogger. I'm an editor at Above The Law, where I blog about lawyers, judges, law firms and the legal industry. Here at True/Slant, I write about our changing notions of privacy.

    If you have story ideas or tips, e-mail me at kashhill@trueslant.com. I've hung out in quite a few newsrooms over the last few years. Currently, I can be found in Breaking Media's Nolita office. In the past, I've been found in midtown Manhattan at The Week Magazine, in Hong Kong at the International Herald Tribune, and in D.C. at the National Press Foundation and the Washington Examiner.

    I have few illusions about privacy -- feel free to follow me on Twitter: kashhill. Or friend me on Facebook... though I might put you on limited profile.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 401
    Contributor Since: March 2009
    Location:New York, NY

    What I'm Up To

    • Staying Above The Law


      Over at Above The Law, I write about lawyers, law firms, judges and the legal industry.

      We especially like “colorful news.” (Yes, that’s a euphemism for gossip.)

      Check out the site here and my stuff here.


    • Writing with real ink

      While most of my writing occurs online at Above The Law and True/Slant, I do occasionally venture into the world of print.  These are some of the magazines and newspapers that I’ve written for:

      The Washington Post

      Washingtonian Magazine

      Time Out New York

      The Orange County Register

      The Washington Examiner

    • Recent projects

      washingtonian issue for tsThe latest (and longest) “real ink” project: the cover story for Washingtonian Magazine’s December issue.

      While I’m usually a writer and reporter, I’m sometimes asked to play pundit. In November, the New York Times asked me to write a mini op-ed for its Room for Debate blog. In December, BBC radio asked me to talk about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook privacy settings for its Newshour (19:00 minute mark), based on this True/Slant post.

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