Is Facebook 'plundering' the new phone-hacking?

  • Journalists increasingly reliant on 'plundering' Facebook
  • Most reporters believe that 'if you put something in the public domain then it's fair game'
  • MEN news editor blasts 'shortcut journalism'

A new study has raised questions over journalists' increasing reliance on social networks such as Facebook and compared the "plundering" of web pages to phone-hacking..

Glenda Cooper's study looked into the ethical implications of 'plundering webpages without permission'and the subsequent decline of the "death knock".

'When a crime or a tragedy occurred in the (mythic) old days, as a hack to get your hands on that coveted photo album, to delve deep into a person's private life, to get that key detail to raise your story from the mundane to the compelling, it would involve some legwork on the ground (either from yourself, or if you worked for a rich enough paper, a substitute rookie or agency reporter) performing those journalistic rites of passage: the doorstep and the death knock,'said Cooper, a lecturer a City University.

She added: 'But is the increasing use of social networking sites as the first port of call when a story breaks – to find photographs, information about people's lives, frank views they may have expressed – the other end of a (very long) continuum to phone hacking?

'Such sites have proved an invaluable short cut for hard pressed desks and reporters, both broadsheet and tabloid, trying to find information at short notice on tight budgets. But what ethical questions does plundering webpages without permission of their originators raise in modern day journalism?

"While there can be no comparison between phone hacking and use of such sites – one illegal and intruding on completely private messages, it is worth considering this: there were 800 phone hacking victims at latest estimate. As of July 2011, there are 29.9m Facebook accounts in the UK.

'What kind of journalism are we getting if every part of your life is only a mouseclick away from being splashed across the front page of a national paper?"

Reporters that get sent on death knocks tend to be the 'youngest and least experienced reporters for local papers or agencies", not only because this is a 'job that no one else wants to do'but because they are seen as more likely to get the story, said Cooper.

One news editor, who was not named, told her: 'As a newsdesk you try to send people with empathy. You may have very good reporters but they may not be so good on a human level. We would often send young journalists [on doorsteps and deathknocks] because they would seem less threatening than a grizzled old hack, and people might be more likely to talk to them."

A former local reporter who is now news editor on a national paper said: "In my memory it is always bad weather when I had to do doorsteps or deathknocks – whether that was the case or just the miserable feeling that you associate with having to knock on a door in those situations.

'Nobody ever tells you what to do apart from a general remark to 'just be careful not to be insensitive' – you're just left hanging."

If you put something in the public domain then it's fair game

But Cooper believes social networking – and the routine use of sites like Twitter, MySpace and Bebo – has changed everything, claiming that most family picture 'collects' are likely to have come from Facebook.

The view of most journalists, according to Cooper, is that 'if you put something in the public domain then it's fair game".

A news editor told her: 'As a news editor I would expect my reporters to find pictures on Facebook – a reporter has let themselves down badly if they don't do the Facebook search."

Some media outlets were now becoming aware that 'smash-and-grab raids on personal data'raised 'difficult questions", with one former Sun journalist described the dangers of relying on Facebook.

'I would be telling myself that it was 'ok' because the pictures were in the public domain.

'But I know I'd be conning myself….To speak to and for real people means you have to meet them and feel what they feel…

'How can I translate the true pain and emotions of a family if I rely on a picture and some styldzed words that capture a moment in time from Twitter or Facebook? Also, there is nothing to hold me to account other than my conscience and, under pressure from a Fleet Street editor, a conscience is a luxury most hacks can't easily afford."

Cooper makes repeated references to the case of Rebecca Leighton, the nurse who was arrested in connection during the murder inquiry at Stepping Hill hospital last year.

Leighton was cleared of any involvement, though later sacked for stealing drugs, and announced she was suing national newspapers over prejudicial coverage following her arrest.

Neal Keeling, who led the Manchester Evening News team that broke many of the developments in the case, said: 'We used a Facebook picture because there was no official one released and no snatched one,'

'But we just captioned it 'nurse Rebecca Leighton' unlike the Mail who then added in all sorts of comments based on her Facebook wall. It's shortcut journalism: 'We can't get the family or friends to speak so we'll nick stuff off Facebook.'"

Cooper said: 'Rebecca Leighton's name was almost inevitably prefixed with the words 'party-loving', because of the nature of some of the comments on her Facebook page.

After the charges were dropped Leighton said: 'I was just out with my friends having a good time. Everybody I know does that. I've not done anything different to what anyone else would, you know a 27-year-old girl, that goes out with her friends.'"

Keeling, meanwhile, said questions over the use of Leighton's Facebook site mean that a vital part of the story has been missed by the national press, but not by MEN.

'The charges have been dropped against Rebecca Leighton," he added "So who was responsible – someone who still works at the hospital? A bank nurse?'

'The media got obsessed with their angel of death story and have not investigated fully. If I was a patient I'd want answers."

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