Pros and cons of social network reporting

The list of online tools you can use in reporting keeps growing, along with the benefits and pitfalls of relying on social networks for information. Jennifer Woodard Mazerazo, associate editor of PBS MediaShift, says her latest favorite tool is Twitter:

The service acts as what some call a “gate jumper.” Because of the way it’s set up — open communication in real time — it’s quite easy to add someone “important” (say, a tech business executive who might not give you the time of day in another context) as a “friend” and just ask him or her a question by writing “@username.” You might be surprised how open people are to communicating on Twitter, even if they ignore emails.

Mazerazo also explains in detail how she uses Facebook, YouTube and Flickr in her reporting on Latino issues. But she cautions that while it may be tempting to run with what you find, doing so can backfire. Case in point: reports that surfaced after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto about the views of her son:

Several big news companies — among them London’s Telegraph and Agence France Presse — lifted quotes about Islam from her son’s Facebook profile. The only problem was that the profile was fake. In this case, traditional media in all its experience didn’t know that social media sources can be a minefield, and it exploded in their faces. Had the “joke” not been discovered sooner or the fake quotes more inflammatory, this could have had serious political implications.

No kidding. As a journalist, you have to apply the same standards to what you discover through social networking as you do to any other information. Practice skepticism and verification at all times.

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