Yesterday, Politico's Ben Smith brought up the issue of journalists "friending" their sources on Facebook. "When a campaign or a government agency is trying to pin down a reporter's inside source, Facebook might be a good place to start," Ben wrote. "And when a campaign type is considering leaking to a reporter, couldn't the fact that you're "friends" on Facebook make the source queasy?" We were really shocked to read this coming from Ben, and not because the issue isn't important — it's a valid point, if not a new one. Pat Walters mentioned the same point in a Poynter.org post from July, and the CBC even instituted an official "Facebook policy" earlier this month, instructing its journalists not to add their sources as friends on Facebook (Canada is one of Facebook's fastest-growing markets, and Toronto was the home of the site's largest local network until it was eclipsed by London last month).
What shocked us was that it appears Ben isn't at all familiar with Facebook's privacy settings, which allow you to, you know, not let others see who your friends are! As TIME's Lev Grossman reminded us (and as I wrote about here on Monday), Facebook's success lies in its ability to empower users to define their networks and those networks' boundaries. Ben's supposed to be young, hip, and know this stuff. Even Newsweek's 56-year old senior editor Steven Levy knows that, and has his privacy settings engineered so you can't see who his friends are unless you are one of them!
Maybe journalists have to be extra-careful and engineer their privacy settings more judiciously than the typical Facebook user, but Facebook makes it relatively easy for them to do so. All you have to do is go to your privacy settings, click on "Edit Settings" under the Search tab, and edit "What People Can Do With My Search Results."
Ben raises a good point, and perhaps all journalists should un-check "View your friend list." And, while even ETP editor and meta-critic Rachel Sklar hasn't blocked her friends, it's OK because she's not really a journalist. She's the Anti-Journalist.