Facebook foraging – leave my friends out of it

My Facebook privacy settings

Being online most of my waking hours, I often think of the identity trail I’m leaving around the web and the issues that has in terms of my privacy.

However, I’ve seldom stopped to think how my activities may affect the privacy of my nearest and dearest.

Tonight, as we in the newsroom sought to follow up on reports that named two girls who have been murdered in Ladywood, it was the latter that struck home.

One of the girls had kept her pictures and her profile public to the West Midlands network. Her sister had been more careful, but there was enough there (her profile pic) to identify her in her sibling’s pics. Family and friends were also listed publicly as “friends” in both profiles.

Now as a journalist trying to piece together the story, that is just the sort of easy-to-access information that you are hoping to find. It is invaluable in illustrating the humanity behind the story and I would always suggest a journalist checks Facebook for stuff like that.

Also, through the friend list, you can message people who know the victims that may want to comment. I know this partly because I used that technique in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Yet if I happen to pop off this mortal coil in some unusual or violent manner, as a daughter, a sister, a cousin and a friend I have no inclination to subject those I care about to Facebook messages from journalists. It wouldn’t matter how courteous, apologetic or sensitive (all the things I try to be) they were.

So tonight I have made my friends list only viewable to my friends and not to my network.

“Hypocrite!” I hear you cry. Well, perhaps. But also I am aware that if you put things on the web you have to realise that they can be quoted, copied and published elsewhere.

I would expect a good journalist to track down tons of information about me that already exists in the flotsam and jetsam floating around the Internet. I would just like to reduce the amount they hassle my friends in order to do so.

It also makes me think that there needs to be some practical education in Internet privacy so that people understand the ramifications of leaving some of their personal life open to the public.

It also raises the question of whether it is ethically sound for Facebook to make full profile privacy an “opt-in” function rather than an “opt-out”.

15 thoughts on “Facebook foraging – leave my friends out of it

  1. I think I’m more morbid than you, Jo. I spend a lot of time thinking about how things will be if I die today and bear this in mind constantly as I leave my traces around the net. I also think about how it would be if I suddenly shot to fame and a pack of journalists is suddenly on my track. That is precisely why I have those more cautious privacy settings on Facebook.

    I think that everybody has a responsibility to think for themselves about what information they put out there. But it is a complex task and I would appreciate forums through which I can discuss it with others.

    My general rule of thumb is that if it’s on the internet, anybody can see it. If it’s something you don’t want everyone to know and wouldn’t want people to know in the event of your sudden fame or death, then don’t write it.

  2. But in hiding your friends from non-friends aren’t you closing down the connectedness that is a key reason to use social media in the first place?

    Personally I’d rather not live my life preparing for disasters that simply won’t happen to me (or to you for that matter). I am moderately cautious about my online presence in that I don’t tend to talk at length about family or friends (you’ll find a pic of the back of my kids’ heads and much dull stuff about allotments and running on my blog but that’s about it). In fact none of my family, immediate or extended, and few friends have any kind of online presence – they’re at the other side of the curve along with most of the rest of the population. If journalists want to get a genuine sense of what people are like they should avoid the semi-fake public faces we show on Facebook etc. and stick to knocking on doors or rummaging in bins.


  3. I have long adopted the policy you are now implementing and my Facebook profile is only available to ‘friends’. In my case, only people I would categorise as real friends at that. Acquaintainces only get access to a very limited profile.

    When I was doing some journalism in Sheffield I used Facebook to track down an address of a student who (it was subsequently discovered) committed suicide. I turned up on the doorstep and spoke to one of his housemates, who was very amicable about the whole thing (at that stage the student was only reported missing) and agreed to let me film an interview. It produced some ‘good’ journalism, but it’s another example of friends being pestered for information.

    On the other hand, apart from potentially making it easier, is this really ethically any different from trying to find out the information by phoning round people or simply showing up somewhere and doorstepping them? At Virginia Tech, the TV journos on the scene got a hard time as well as some of the ‘digital doorsteppers’.

    Of course, as journalists we should be and usually are aware of the potential implications of publishing all sorts of information. But like you, I worry how much the general public are aware about how much information journalists and others (imagine you were a witness in a court case for example) can access.

    I don’t know much about education policy and teachers are probably already overly burdened but should this sort of thing not be part of a citizenship class in schools?

  4. I was working on this story, and contacted Sabrina and Yasmine’s friends via facebook. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience. But I look at this as the same way as knocking on someone’s door and asking them if they want to comment – a nasty experience for people going through it, but justifiable if you go about it in a professional way.

    Surely asking someone discreetly if they want to comment and leaving them alone permanently if they say no is better than the usual tabloid thing of copy-pasting information and comments from websites willy-nilly. Not to mention it’s in the spirit of the Press Complaints Commission code (for what it’s worth).

  5. I’m aware that I don’t have all of the information and don’t want to tell you how to do your jobs, but I fail to see why you need to contact friends and family of recently dead people. If someone I knew had been murdered the last person I’d want to hear from would be a journalist working on a story about them. The Police, yes, because they can do something with that information but any stranger who can’t add something constructive to the situation can fuck off, frankly.

    In other words, I’d like to think that I can keep my online social connections as public as I please without worrying that in the unlikely event that I’m murdered in a sensational manner my nearest and dearest will be hassled by strangers. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    And yes, I’m aware there are degrees here and not all death knock are carried out in the same manner. It just bugs me.

  6. I certainly don’t begrudge journalists making such enquiries and I agree that they are completely within the spirit of the PCC.

    And yes, I believe a sensitive enquiry is much better than the newspapers copy and pasting whatever they find on the web (it is not just tabloids that do it) or, when faced with a lack of information, making spurious assumptions.

    But it is likely that if journalists were for some reason scouring my Facebook friends, it wouldn’t just be one sympathetic enquiry it would be a number from different publications all trying to get that important quote.

    So, taking my journalists hat off for a minute, I would prefer to try and protect my loved ones from that sort of barrage. I understand this is unlikely to ever happen, but I think it’s a precaution I want to take for them.

    This is all an issue about ease of access. After all, I’m sure a determined journo would be track friends and family down anyway. But at least the lazy journalists would be stripped out and the deluge would not be as great.

  7. @Pete Ashton

    Yes, that is the reaction that most people have and what I’m about to say is by way of an explanation rather than a justificaton:

    Why do journalists try to find out about such things? Well, simply because people are interested to know about them.

    People care. Not in the way they care about their relatives, but it is true that they want to know what has happened to a victim, especially if they can identify with them in some way.

    I’ve seen this proven by website hits to stories such as the Larbi-Cherif sisters in Birmingham and the Foster familiy in Oswestry.

    If it were not the case I’m sure murders would be reduced to nibs of public record in the same way as other crime stories are.

    As it is murders often make the most impactful stories: Fred and Rose West; Ian Brady and Myra Hindley – names burnt onto the brains of people of a certain age in the UK.

    There are other arguments that exist for contacting friends and relatives: one is that some people want to talk about their lost loved ones (I’ve had evidence of this first hand).

    Personally I don’t think that washes as a justification. We are not primarily in the business of providing a comforting service to loved ones. It is, in the cold light of analyisis, a secondary benefit.

    But as long as people wish to find out information about such tragedies, it is probably naive to think that journalists wouldn’t try and contact those who knew the victim.

    There is no law preventing it and the PCC code permits it as long as it is done with care and discretion and not followed up on if the person declines to be interviewed.

    Therefore I believe it is better that people are informed that this is the situation and how they choose to deal with that is up to them.

    Keeping your contacts open in the idealistic hope human nature/the law/journalism will change is probably inadvisable.

  8. Didn’t Tom Scotney write something about the merits/otherwise of death knocks recently? Hang on, I’ll have a rummage…

    Ah yes, here – http://tomscotney.com/2008/08/20/journalists-and-the-recently-bereaved/

    My 2p – if you put something in the public domain (ie, on the internet) then don’t be surprised to see that content (your relationships with others, in-jokes, funny photos, etc) used in an unexpected context.

    By the same token, don’t be surprised if your email’s hacked and don’t be surprised if your ‘private’ settings, DMs and so on are exposed to the world (ever sent something very private via something as wonky as Twitter? Now that’s living dangerously).

    I think it’s just a case of judging the likelihood of these things – the online equivalent of wearing fresh underwear in case you get hit by a bus.

  9. I have a tangential remark in that the copy of Metro I saw on the bus this morning had a very large photo of the Larbi-Cherif sisters. My reaction was to wonder why it needed to be so big. That photo, along with a half-dozen photos inside the paper, seemed like a prurient violation that is likely to compound the family’s grief. For what? I cannot see that those photos will help anyone.

    I do see a distinction between the Metro story and wanting to gather information for a variety of purposes – figuring out what happened, alerting the public, and so on. But I suspect the Metro editors would try to justify their thinking on the same basis as you, which does your position no favours.

  10. Hi dp,

    This moves the debate slightly towards the ethics of presenting information about a murder case, rather than the rights or wrongs of contacting friends and relatives.

    However, I understand the two are linked – how distressing the contact with a journalist is will also be influenced by the story they produce afterwards.

    I think it is worth noting that I offered up the previous “interest of the public” argument by way of an explanation rather than as a justification. I am certainly not claiming it as my own position.

    I am divided on this issue. I hate contacting friends and family of the recently deceased. I don’t believe many journalists enjoy the experience.

    I am lucky that I have so far only had to do it once in my career. If I could have avoided it entirely I would have been much happier.

    Should it still be done? Well that is a slightly different matter.

    It sits uncomfortably with me that transmission of information is fully in the control of one organisation, i.e. the police.

    This isn’t something that comes from a lazy “all police are bad” attitude”, more a concern that human nature often seeks to conceal information that would make life more difficult. Groups of individuals that identify with each other can, even unconsciously, seek to protect themselves.

    Police already have a tight control over the transmission of information about crimes, as any journalist who has spent a day dealing with a police press office will tell you.

    That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the media in its current form is the best vehicle to provide an alternate route to that information.

    I am open to the suggestion of alternatives or ideas of how other people think the media should operate.

    I think how you approach this argument comes down to how you perceive the news industry.

    Is news primarily a commercial product that needs to titilate, shock or entertain to grab people’s attention. Or is it more important that it focuses on its public service remit? Is it there to investigate, educate and act as a watchdog?

    Of course the answer is that it needs to be both and different newspapers and journalists place different stresses on the two.

    (As an aside – should news have a democratic element where readers dictate how/which investigations are conducted? If so, how?)

  11. Joanna, I can appreciate some aspects of your position, and that you are thinking about those difficult to negotiate grey areas. I agree with most of what you’ve said here. But there are still points of difference worth noting. Some of them are pretty simple. It’s not just the police who would be concerned about releasing information, it’s also other legal entities, like the Data Protection Act, and social entities like the family, and neighbours.

    Newsgatherers will want all sorts of info, but are also in the awkward position of deciding what to do with it. It’s a peculiar, quasi-formal role that comes with few of the regulatory mechanisms associated with police, justice, medical and coronary systems. So there are excesses in both directions: excesses of caution and excesses of incaution.

    I take it as evidence that the news media has the privilege of deciding what boundaries to set, but that it does not constitute the best avenue for information. Nor does any one medium of communication.

    So the best response I can come up with at the mo’ is that the credibility of a given organisation derives significantly from how sensitively it monitors any given situation. I would be happy to hear the Post editors say they are witholding information out of respect for the bereaved in some instances, while releasing similar kinds of information in other circumstances. It’s a judgement call, and I respect that when it’s transparent.

  12. Hi dp,

    I think I agree with you.

    I know that the Manchester Evening News has made the editorial decision that it will not publish Facebook pictures of the deceased without asking permission from relatives first.

    If every other publication is printing the pictures I understand there is the fear that you will lose your readers to them.

    But I’ve always been a fan of the concept of the “transparent newsroom” that has been spearheaded by The Spokesman Review in the US.

    I hope that if a news brand can find a way to effectively communicate the editorial judgements it has made, as you suggest, it may command the respect and loyalty of its readers. I do have to admit, however, that I have no physical evidence to prove that this is the case.

  13. Some of the physical evidence you want will be in the form of contra-indications: instances of readers abandoning a paper after it has revealed too much, crossing some imaginary line of courtesy or taste.

    I am now wracking my brain for any memories of same. When has a newspaper gone overbaord in reporting some personal tragedy, and lost readers as a result?

  14. The Hillsborough example from Jo, I think, proves that a form of democracy exists within an audience already – but it is a reactive democracy rather than a pre-emptive one. The Sun has never recovered anything like its 1980s circulation it enjoyed on Merseyside in the wake of what is to be one of the low points of recent tabloid journalism.

    As Jo said, as journalists we are in the business of collating facts and the logical thing to do when someone dies is for the reporter to approach the family for comment. Like Jo, I have also been in the situation where the family whose door I have knocked on have found it of great comfort to speak to the Press and therefore have input into what we print/publish. But Jo is right, we don’t do it to provide comfort.

    When working on a regional evening newspaper, the deathknock was probably the worst part of the job. I’m sure most reporters have had the f*** off reaction from a family that Pete Ashton mentioned, and the correct thing to do in that circumstance is to do exactly as the family request. As information gatherers, the job of trying to get as many facts as possible has been completed – and the wishes of the family should, from then on, be respected.

    The problem facing regional journalists is that while reporters for regional titles will respect the wishes of families, others – national reporters, agency reporters – won’t. They don’t have the same ties to an area that a local reporter has, and the result is a series of horror stories which all reporters will have heard. The importance of the local ties for a reporter shouldn’t be underplayed – if a local reporter is too pushy, keeps going back, upsets the family and so on, word will get round. The family will talk to their friends and may stop buying the paper, and the damage to the brand is done in that area, often for good.

    But, more often than not, the family of someone who has died in sudden circumstances will want to say a few words, maybe release a picture and so on, and I know of several family support officers within the police who advise families to talk to the local paper so the comments are out there to feed the national interest. Picking up on Jo’s point about the police releasing information, it has to be better to try and speak to someone direct rather than just receive the information via the police. It allows us to verify information, making the information we have valuable to the reader/user. In one case I covered, the only reason the family spoke to me is because the police had described the suspect (subsequently found guilty) as the victim’s boyfriend and they wanted to set the record straight. On top of everything else they were dealing with, they had wrong information from the police about the relationship between their daughter and the suspect circulating in the media. That information, released by the police, came from the suspect – who in court was proved to be a crazed stalker.

    To me, the presence of social media allows, as Tom said, the chance to approach people discreetly and ask if they wish to comment, clarify information, and so on. If they are upset by the journalist’s actions, the journalist should apologise, just as they would on the doorstep. Alternatively, they can just ignore the message. Websites such as gonetoosoon are public tribute sites, and surely repeating what is written on those is only the same as repeating the messages on cards left at the scene of crime? As for pictures – I would suggest half a dozen pictures from Facebook used in print is far too much, but using a picture or two from a public social network profile will always be tempting for a media organisation which knows there is interest in the story. It is then surely up to the audience to decide if it believes such use of pictures is acceptable, and for those who believe it isn’t, the answer is surely as Jo suggests: lock down the profile.

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