Thursday, January 24, 2008

Being 'friends' with sources: A discussion topic

OK, fellow Middle Tennessee journalists, your faithful chapter Webmaster has a question to throw out to y’all to maybe get some discussion going. What do you think about “friending” – or more likely “being ‘friended’ by” – sources and people you cover?

If you don’t know what on earth we’re talking about, here’s an explainer. “Social networking” Web sites are all the rage these days – MySpace, Facebook, etc. – and they let you have online “friends” who keep up with your goings-on and communicate back and forth with you. The phenomenon has created its own verb form, “friending,” for the act of asking someone to be your online “friend.” (And the reverse is to “be friended by” another online user.)

Journalists are doing social networking, myself included (heck, and those of you in Middle Tennessee may have noticed that the revamped has its own system of online “friending”). So, I’m figuring that it’s just a matter of time before some well-meaning source somewhere in the USA sends a “friend” invitation to a journalist.

If you’re that journalist, what do you do? (And if this has happened to you, what did you do?)

I’m old-fashioned, and my gut instinct is to say “you should politely decline. We cannot allow there to be friendship or a perception of friendship with sources.”

But is online “friending” the same as being friends with someone in real life? Will sources make that distinction? More importantly, will our readers/audiences make that distinction?

I’d been thinking about this for several weeks now. But I saw Michael Silence’s post yesterday on the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Web site – which picked up a snippet of a piece about journalists creating a “digital identity” – and thought I should post on the blog about it.

What are your thoughts?

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