Unethical Facebook friend requests? I think not

imagesI loved the ethics class I took in undergrad. Thinking about what’s most “right” when there are so many factors fascinated me.  At that time, social media definitely existed, but it wasn’t yet the marketing juggernaut it is now. And there was certainly no Social Media Ethics class offered.

Well now I’m in it — and Lecture 1 already has my wheels turning.

The question, posed to journalists:

Is it (un) ethical to contact a murder suspect’s or murder victim’s friend on Facebook?

Justin Kings‘ technique for making an ethical decision:

  1. What’s my motivation?
  2. What are the likely effects, and to whom?
  3. Where does my duty lie strongest?

I think this technique is a fair strategy. The only potential weakness I see is that it requires the people using it to be very honest with themselves about their motivations, effects and priorities. For example, in the question of the murder suspect/victim’s friend, journalists could convince themselves of whatever yields the results they desire. But as long as the people using this technique are using it because they truly want to choose the most ethical path, and not convince themselves that what they want to do is ethical, this three-pronged approach is solid.

When the question was asked in lecture, I immediately started thinking about how I would handle the situation. I do work for a news organization, and although I’m not a crime reporter (and so I wouldn’t deal with this exact situation in real life), I have an idea of how I would handle it.

My motivation would be that talking to the friend would have journalistic value. It could reveal the character of the suspect or victim — and yes, generate page views. Scoring the interview could also be good for me as a journalist — getting respect from my managers and coworkers, and solidifying my future in news.

The effects? Depending on the person, the friend request, interview or story could upset them. And depending on the results of the interview, it could either be good or bad for the public’s perception of the suspect/victim’s character. But either way, the public is more informed and our news organization builds credibility, as do I, by making contact and gaining more information.

I’m doing my best to be objective in this hypothetical situation, and maybe my journalism school training is shining through here — but I truly believe my duty to inform the public would be more important than allowing the friend to remain anonymous.

I’ve also tried to consider, what if I were the friend? Would I want to be contacted? Probably not. But I could always ignore the friend requests or messages from reporters. I may find the communication annoying, but I can’t imagine such a request for contact striking me as unethical. A reporter contacting the friend does not mean that the friend must talk to them, but the reporter not even trying to contact a potential source just doesn’t seem like an option for a journalist.

How would you handle the situation as a journalist? What about as the friend?

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