I’m stuck on the word “friend.” Friends get together to see movies, talk about their families, maybe swap secrets.
The people we cover should not be our friends. If they are, we shouldn’t cover them.
Sixteen years ago, my closest friend, Melissa Hale-Spencer, with whom I worked at a weekly newspaper in upstate New York, wrote a piece that stuck with me.
She was covering the startling bankruptcy of a popular auctioneer whose downfall was vigorously, blindly denied by his many supporters — people who were snookered and lost a lot of money through him.
Melissa had written a profile of the auctioneer and had been to his auctions. It was a grim, difficult demise for her to document.
When she said hello in a court hallway, the defiant auctioneer wouldn’t respond. “You aren’t anybody’s friend,” he told her.
She agreed, and later expanded on her role in a prize-winning column.
“A friend,” she wrote, “is someone who stands by you, and takes your side, even in tough times; a reporter is someone without allegiances who tries to tell all sides, and who, in tough times, digs deeper, trying to find the truth.”
I keep a strict boundary between people I cover and people I consider friends. Never the twain shall meet.
For reporters and sources, friendly is OK, but not friends.
The newest challenge I’ve faced in setting limits was peculiar: Facebook, the social networking Web site that can be quite addictive, as the Pope warned us.
I’ve enjoyed reconnecting on the site with old friends and classmates. Too often, I scan the banal chatter among people I used to know well.
What I didn’t anticipate is the conglomeration of people from all parts of our lives, which, for some journalists, includes linking to sources.
I’m not comfortable doing that.
As I mentioned, I cringe at calling sources “friends,” even if it’s an applied label rather than a heartfelt one. I don’t like opening my off-duty thoughts to people I know professionally.
Some journalists don’t see this as I do.
For a bit of a counterpoint to my point, I asked my friend Bryan Sears about the line he draws with Facebook.
Bryan is the political editor and State House reporter for Patuxent Publishing in Maryland. I got to know him during my two sessions as a State House reporter. Bryan also is the president of SPJ’s Maryland Pro chapter.
We’re linked on Facebook. Bryan’s Facebook friends include several state representatives and other political players, and I consider him ethical, so I asked him to contribute to this column.
“As a journalist,” he wrote, “I struggle with the issue of Facebook relationships.
“I see social networking as a great way to help keep up with the goings on of people you cover in the same way that it helps keep up with your personal friends. Therein lies the trap….
“There are a lot of times I refrain from writing things on my Facebook page simply because it’s too close to the line. I’m not talking about anything inappropriate. I’m not one to write or talk about my personal political views. It’s never been my style. But there are things that I would certainly not share with just anyone.
“I certainly would have no issues questioning an elected official about something he or she wrote or a photo or video they posted.
“Some journalist colleagues of mine and I were joking recently in the pressroom at the State House that we’d feel more comfortable if we could join ‘acquaintances.com’ or something similar….
“For now, I use it, but I am constantly revisiting the question, ‘Am I getting enough out of this to justify the effort?’”
My SPJ chapter in Washington, D.C., recently had a provocative, helpful discussion about the use of Facebook and other social networking sites for news gathering and as social outlets.
The best — but imperfect — answer I heard that day was about privacy settings.
For now, I’m adjusting my privacy settings, and watching what I type, mindful of who might read it.
To the people I cover, or from whom I otherwise need to stay detached: It’s nothing personal — truly, literally — but we’re not friends.