News Gathering, Social Media

Using Facebook as a Reporter

This post was originally published as a note on Luke O’Neill’s Facebook page, May 25, 2011. It is used with permission and has been edited for publication on

Screenshot of Luke O'Neill's Facebook page

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve found a number of stories through Facebook. In fact, I have been able to source more contacts through Facebook than I have through Twitter.

I write for the Irish Echo, a small publication in Sydney, Australia. I used Facebook to find sources during the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Christchurch earthquake and the Japanese tsunami, earthquake and ensuing Fukushima nuclear scare.

Here are some example of stories sourced using Facebook search:

We need Irish voices in our stories. The catastrophic events I mention above were not fitting for my newspaper until we were able to find that Irish people were involved. So there is a sort of strange, self-imposed nationality-based restriction to the stories I write. This is where Facebook came in.

Twitter gets much of the plaudits in discussions about the transforming nature of social media upon news. It has been spoken and written about ad nauseum and there are plenty of good examples of just how well journalists can navigate their way past Bieber to Benghazi.

Yet, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook is a secret weapon when it comes to social news and social search.

The ability to build relationships through groups and to search for location-based updates is undervalued and maybe misunderstood. Journalists should spend more time experimenting with Facebook search. You will be surprised at how quickly you will find results.

Screenshot of the search window on Facebook

Using these approaches via your personal Facebook profile throws up obvious problems: privacy, loss of data, potential for spam, etc. It’s likely that journalistic trepidation in clicking that send message button comes not from a desire to avoid intrusion into strangers’ lives but from the journalist’s own fears that they will be intruded upon.

Here’s some examples of situations where Facebook search can assist reporting:

  • Sourcing photos of deceased (normal ethical considerations apply)
  • Death & misadventure in tourist destinations (Tourists provide rich info about where they are and provide lots of photos. You can get in contact with family and friends this way.)
  • Natural disasters (lots of pictures, video and reactions in comments – such as family asking “are you okay?”)
  • Charity efforts (often emerge following natural disasters)
  • Emergency response (see Queensland Police Media)
  • Causes: people often set up groups to call for apologies, bans, or legislative change (standard journalistic value judgments apply)

Right. So why have I set up a journalist’s Facebook page? It’s partly — I admit — to avoid the concerns I mention earlier, and also to ring-fence my news musing and pontification from disinterested Facebook friends. My primary school friends don’t care much that Dorothy Parvaz was detained or that she has been set free.

Mainly, I have set it up as a potential resource for myself and others. I’m sure there are many journalists like me who are still finding their way amid the social media muddle. The presence of self-appointed “social media experts” on Twitter may dissuade newcomers from taking their first steps. I would particularly welcome input and debate from young and student journalists on my Facebook page.

I am no expert. You should beware of those who say they are: it suggests an end to learning, something we should all avoid.

For news users: I hope at some point to provide exclusive content and to engage with the people who are so kind to “like” the page.

Some things that you can expect this page to touch upon:

  • Issues journalists face (I’ll try to avoid plain griping)
  • Using social media in your news organisation AKA “Making It Up As You Go Along”
  • Media observation and critique (this is suicidal territory but I include it because Australia, in particular, provides rich fodder)
  • Ethical Issues, legal constraints and fair attribution for UGC
  • Community Management: We’ll all be doing more of this whether we like it or not so I’m keen to hear how others are doing
  • Clangers (just for fun really…)
  • Q&As
  • Aggregation and link-out policies (Again, keen to hear others approach this).

I would welcome my media friends, colleagues, and peers to join me here to kick things off.

Here goes