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Matt Von Pinnon, Published November 07 2010

Von Pinnon: Dismissing Facebook info like sticking head in sand

On several instances in recent years, The Forum has fielded complaints from readers and even some fellow journalists upset with us for using or quoting in stories information from Facebook and other social media sites.

The material is suspect, they say, because it’s hard to know if the person posting comments is really who they say they are.

Secondly, it’s not an ideal source because the format doesn’t readily allow for follow-up questions, often the most important and revealing part of any interview.

And third, using social media sites for information-gathering can appear lazy, as it doesn’t require much reporting work.

The main tenets of their arguments are solid and, as a journalist schooled on many time-honored reporting principles, I tended to agree with them.

Until recently.

How we communicate in today’s Information Age is rapidly changing, and how journalists find information has to change with it.

A vivid example of this changing landscape played out last week when we learned of the tragic death of 16-year-old Cassidy Joy Andel of Cooperstown, N.D.

Searching to find information or sources that might help us explain or add context to the girl’s death was difficult until we checked Cassidy’s Facebook page.

A big part of her world – a virtual world it’s clear she spent a lot of time in – was revealed: her friends, her likes, her dislikes, her dreams and her fears.

It was a glimpse inside the mind of today’s typical

16-year-old girl. It’s where a lot of people reside today, right or wrong. And this is how they prefer to communicate, right or wrong.

As someone who doesn’t partake in social media sites, I find that world both fascinating and troubling.

I can see the attraction of being able to communicate with a lot of people simply and simultaneously, but I don’t feel I’m missing anything by not being part of it.

I used to brush it off as a fad that would fade in time, but now I’m convinced it’s here to stay, not unlike when phones largely replaced in-person visits as the preferred way to “reach out and touch someone.”

Which brings me back to whether journalists should use information gleaned from social media sites:

Information is valuable. It should be sought out in face-to-face conversation, over the phone, in documents and records, or on social media networks.

Good journalists always try harder to verify information by finding more of it, but information should not simply be dismissed because of its source. Instead, we should always consider the source and reveal it to others so they can also consider it.

That said, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue. After all, we’re human, and we communicate in complex ways, many of which can’t be conveyed on a screen or through a text message.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.