Are social networks fair game for journalists?

Social networking sites now host billions of pictures and comments, a few of which might be relevant in covering a news story. Can the media use them? In the October 2007 NPPA News Photographer magazine, Brian McDermott reports that different newsrooms answer that question differently. KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh used photos from a Facebook memorial site set up after a teenager was murdered in August. The two newspapers in town did not. The Roanoke Times used photos from Facebook in its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. The Washington Post did not, but it has used images from Flickr. Fair use arguments may trump copyright questions in cases like this, but McDermott points out that other cases raise troubling questions.

It’s one thing to grab a mugshot of a murdered 16-year-old rather than trouble her grieving family for one. But what about, say, grabbing pictures for a story about underage drinking from public Facebook profiles? You would have no problems finding pictures that illustrate the story…What if a reporter creates a fake account so they can access the profiles of people in [Facebook] network[s]?

Newsrooms clearly need to develop guidelines covering the use of social networks in news gathering. If you know of any that already have such guidelines, please share.