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Facebook Fever: do you protect your sources better in the bar?

Are journalists shielding the identity of their sources more by taking them out for a beer, especially in a see and be seen place such as a press club, than by adding them as friends on Facebook? That was one of the key questions Thursday's debate about "Facebook: friend or foe", organised by the Oslo chapel of Norway's journalist union, boiled down to.

'In the case of Facebook, we are presented with two conflicting virtues: the need to protect our sources and the value of being transparent,' said Arne Jensen of the Norwegian Editor's Association, one of the two panellists of the evening. 'Facebook works as an overview of contacts more than anything else, it's not a map of personal relations. It's not any better if I have a pint of beer with a VG journalist or if I add him or her as friend on Facebook,' said John Christian Elden, the second panellist, a well-known barrister whose Facebook connection to glamour model Ayalar and others were 'exposed' in Dagbladet's recent 'undercover investigation'.

It was funny kind of evening: the press club was packed, and there was a lot if buzz about who were Facebook-friends with who, how long they had been there, and how many 'friends' they had. Neither of the two panellists were opposed to journalists using Facebook: both, as well as the chair of the debate, had Facebook profiles, so the strongest opposition came from the audience:

'Is it really okay to post your contact book online? What about protecting your sources? On many occasions you need to take a beer somewhere out of the limelight,' said Trygve Aas Olsen, editor of trade journal Journalisten. He added: 'What if the boss of a whistleblower logs onto Facebook and finds evidence, or evidence enough to suspect, that this person is the source of the story?'

'Well, if he hits the town, and especially the press club, he'll see lots of journalists drinking with their sources, said Sigvald Sveinbjörnsson, news editor of business news site NA24, sardonically. He found it strange that the organisers had managed to fill up the entire press club to discuss Facebook, while a lot of journalists for a long time had had a substantial share of their contacts on MSN messenger.

'Aren't you worried about how you can be suspected of being a source because you're friends with someone on Facebook, if people can think you are the source from a closed court hearing?' the chair of the debate asked Elden. ' Well, they think so anyway,' was Elden's laconic reply.

'I think it's important to realise that just because we face a new reality, journalists won't abandon their reason,' said Jensen: 'Any innovation that eases communication between people is positive. We have to have that as the starting point and then consider problematic aspects as they occur. Every new communication technology through history has been met with calls for regulation.'

If you have powerful friends as your real friends it's not problematic if you reveal this on Facebook, quite the contrary. But on Facebook you lack the nuanciation: you're either a friend or not, not an acquaintance or graded according to how close a friend. If you get the impression that Elden is a buddy of the people who cover his cases – then you get a credibility problem.'

'You have to be conscious of what you post online, said Elden: 'You shouldn't post information you wouldn't be comfortable with putting up on the wall of your local supermarket. We're currently seeing that information posted on Facebook becomes the basis for many a story in the gossip press, in Se&Hör etc [publications equivalent to Now, Hello, News of the World]

However, using Facebook as a source for stories should perhaps raise a question or two, especially when we know that all the people who've befriended the well-reputed Norwegian foreign correspondent Hans Willhelm Steinfeldt on Facebook has befriended an impostor, someone asserted.

Which brought us to the fact that Per Edgar Kokkvold, secretary of the Press Association, has said that journalists should not interview people they have as friends on Facebook. To which Jensen replied: 'Kokkvod is very close to press ethics, and very far away from Facebook.'

Now, Kokkvold is a sensible man on most issues to do with press ethics, but this post from Lene Johansen, a close friend, really puts it all in perspective:

The secretary of the Norwegian Press Association, Per Edgar Kokkvold is on the warpath: Real journalists aren't on Facebook, because we all know that real journalists get a dog if they want a friend... You see, when Kokkvold was the age of the people he is now criticizing for being reporters and being on Facebook, reporters used a non-digital Facebook. This forum is called Tostrup Kjeller'n and is a closed private club in Oslo where you have to have a press card, or a membership bestowed by the owner, to get in [not the case anymore, think the admittance card disappeared somewhere between the introduction of Norway's ban on smoking in bars and the move to a new location]

That was, and still is, where members of Norwegian industry and politics whispered in the ears of reporters. That’s where older male reporters picked up the young female politicians and reporters they would bed. That’s where the elites would be able to network...


Hi, I found my way here through your Facebook post. This debate is very interesting. It seems journalists in Norway are way ahead of Sweden when it comes to addressing the issues connected with Facebook usage for journalists.
But as Facebook usage in Sweden is growing rapidly I bet the discussion will come up in Sweden too, which would be a good thing.

It is indeed an interesting debate. I also wrote a piece on this for the Press Gazette: it brings in a few more perspectives and offers basic advice on what journalists should keep in mind about Facebook:

Thanks for reporting on this panel. Very helpful.

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