Teacher's pet or pal?

A senior American judge was once asked to give students a crystal-clear definition of fraud. His answer: ‘Well, I know it when I see it.”

It is the same for journalists. If you go in a side-alley bar and spot a local council planning official huddled in a corner with a housing developer, would you wander out of earshot and not bother to mention it to the newsdesk?

Evidence of improper and questionable relationships between bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople, sports clubs, investors and lobby groups make headlines for all the right reasons – even where investigations subsequently clear suspects of any actual wrongdoing.  

What is important is how others view the behaviour, regardless of the background details. That’s why local councillors must declare interests at planning meetings, and rules are in place in the City of London to prohibit fraternisation between dealers who work in the same offices. And that’s why journalists who decide to work in universities – either as part-time tutors, full-time staff or occasional visitors – need to be careful about their dealings with students, and particularly choosy about their internet activities.

Once you cross the threshold from newspaper office to classroom, you are in the shoes of that planning official who happens to be enjoying a lunchtime drink with an old school chum who coincidentally works for a housebuilding firm, just as a reporter walks into the bar…

You will get some help in the form of official guidance from your new employer, who will wish to avoid any real or perceived any conflict of interest and protect all parties.

Tutors with financial, emotional, sexual or family relationships with any students on their courses are required to alert their line managers, who may decide to make arrangements for students to be assessed and taught by other staff.

But it may be time for these regulations to be updated – many institutions drew up these guidelines prior to the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn or Second Life.

Lecturers do use Facebook to keep in touch with students who have graduated and are working in the industry. But there are lecturers with current students as ‘internet pals”, and students do invite their favourite tutors to join their personal sites, while they are completing their studies.

What message is that sending out to their peers, and the parents who are paying for the fees? Should universities intervene and warn tutors off, or should faculties take a more tolerant line and encourage staff and students to socialise on the web? Why not have all the students and staff signed up to a common social network page, putting staff and undergraduates in touch with alumni?

Tessa Mayes, investigative journalist and author, believes social networking sites are part of everyday working life and ought to be taken on board by journalism courses. She said: ‘I think university authorities should lighten up. It’s time there was less monitoring of lecturer-student relationships and more focus on the quality of the education being provided.

 ‘Facebook is wrongly described as a dating site, but it has morphed into a communications network for all kinds of things, including professional journalism groups.”

 Laura Whateley, working as a researcher with the Centre for Investigative Journalism, found herself on her university’s social network site when she started her course. She said: ‘That was all right. But I know of a student who had a tutor contact her, and she didn’t want to add him as a friend to her personal site. She felt she could communicate with her tutors quite adequately and didn’t like the idea of any of them viewing her holiday pictures or messages with friends.”

Alex Wood, who has completed a course at Cardiff University, is also sceptical. He said: ‘It is a bad idea. At university we are all adults, but to be honest I would think it a bit strange for a lecturer to want to be a Facebook friend of a student. Why would they want to?”

Michael Foley, who coordinates an MA international journalism course at the Dublin Institute of Technology, has contributed to the drafting of ethical codes for media professionals across Europe, said: ‘It is inappropriate to have current students, especially undergraduates, as Facebook pals. It could be misinterpreted. The term ‘Facebook pals’ ought to alert us. We should have a professional relationship with students, allowing us to do our jobs and enabling us to assess them without guilt or other feelings.”

David English, deputy director at the Centre for Journalism Studies in Cardiff, said: ‘It sets a very dangerous precedent if lecturers join such sites while their students are on their courses. A cosy bonhomie is unhealthy in management and teaching during the course of an academic year. It is an issue which needs regulation and monitoring.”

Broadcast Journalism Training Council secretary Jim Latham said: ‘Considering how many other levels of training are being updated at the moment, if the present rules on relationships date from before social networking sites then they should be revisited.”

Glyn Mottershead, who teaches news writing and subediting on the postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism at Cardiff, said: ‘It is an easy way to share data outside of the university environment, and I am reluctant to say there should be a central policy dealing with this issue.”

Actually, there is a simple test. If parents contacted your newsdesk and complained that students had been taught by a tutor who had half of the class as Facebook friends (and they had received the best marks) would that be a story …

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