How I use Facebook for reporting (And what I won’t do)
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.
– 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.
(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.
As mentioned above, I use Facebook to keep in touch with readers. If you’re among them, feel free to friend me.