I think NPR says it best in their ethics handbook: “We acknowledge that nothing on the web is truly private.”
In my training sessions with reporters on social media, I’ve always urged them not to put anything on the internet — whether you think it’s private or not — that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being broadcast publicly. This is the safest attitude to have online, because something private can be retweeted, shared or even screen-grabbed and spread further than you may have intended.
However, many individuals have an expectation of privacy online, and I believe journalists should respect that to a reasonable degree. I think it’s absolutely ethical for a journalist or employer (or anyone, for that matter) to Google, follow or Facebook-friend request; it’s the responsibility of a social media user to understand and manage their privacy settings and be aware of their digital reputation.
However, I think a journalist should only use content from someone else’s social media space if it’s (a) newsworthy and (b) either shared publicly or the reporter has permission from the user to include privately shared information in a story.
I routinely check my privacy settings and my Google results, and I am cautious about accepting Facebook friend requests since that is the network on which I occasionally share an update intended for my friends rather than the public. Unfortunately, not all social media users are aware of how they appear to the public.
Facebook especially is known for frequently adjusting how privacy settings work — introducing new options and including a default that some users might not choose for themselves. I think Facebook’s Help Center explains these changes as well as older features well, but the same users who are not aware of their own privacy settings are likely also the ones who don’t realize Facebook maintains such a robust help section.
Although maybe not for every single Facebook settings update, Facebook does use little pop-ups to tell users that the look of their profile is changing or there’s something new to adjust in their settings. While that’s helpful, maybe that’s not enough.
According to Consumer Reports, as of 2013, 13 million Facebook users have never even looked at their privacy settings. Perhaps Facebook should give these users a pop-up every time they log in until they at least click over to the privacy settings page. Then they could deliver a pop-up every time there’s a new adjustment to privacy settings. While this might annoy some users, at least no one could say Facebook wasn’t trying to make its users aware of their privacy options.