Social networking sites aren't the same as social networking

What a difference a year makes. This time last summer I had just finished reading hundreds of news stories produced by journalism students and I don’t recall a single one being sourced from Facebook.

This year, dozens of stories have referenced the seemingly ubiquitous social-networking website on which online ‘friends’exchange gossip, information and falsehoods – as well as pictures of dubious taste.

Most teachers probably think students of all subjects spend far too much time on such sites, but anyone training to be journalist actually has a pretty good reason for going there. Because, by finding stories via Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter and the like, journalism students are only doing the same as an increasing number of working journalists.

Barely a day now passes without one of the national newspapers sourcing a story from Facebook. The regional press is increasingly full of such items.

Broadcasting is following suit, and Sky News now has a regular slot for ‘stories, discussions and videos that are lighting up the net”. Such stories are frequently sourced from social networking sites, as well as YouTube and some of the internet’s darker corners.

Facebook et al are now used by their members for a growing number of reasons, many of which will be of potential interest to nosey journalists. In the old days, people upset by something or other might stage a demonstration on the streets; these days they are as likely to set up a virtual protest group with an online petition.

It’s not just about spotting stories. Journalists now routinely check the social-networking profiles of people who, for whatever reason, have become part of the news agenda.

So, even us old hacks, who have no interest in having online ‘friends”, or in spending any more time than strictly necessary in front of a computer screen, should recognise that many other people do. And, as with other places where people gather, that means they can be a source of news, feature ideas, contacts, and sources.

The online generation can certainly teach us a thing or two about sourcing stories in such ways. But, in return, perhaps we could teach them that not all human life is virtual.

Just as ignoring Facebook would be a blinkered approach for a journalist in 2008, so ignoring the world beyond the internet would be a blinkered approach for a journalist in any year.

As Andrew Marr puts it in his splendid book My Trade: ‘There is an idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers. The biggest problems are not caused by lying or intrusion. They are caused by conformity and dullness.

‘The best slogan for a more vigorous and useful news agenda today would be: get out more often.”

Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist, and teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield

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