Facebook, not fact book

Published on June 9, 2014

It isn’t unusual for journalists to tap social media for information when private people come into the public eye. In fact, it happens all the time.

For people like Justin Bourque, the Moncton man suspected of shooting and killing three RCMP officers and wounding two others last week, sites like Facebook were easily accessed tools for gathering information and images for media outlets starved for material and for a public struggling to attach a face to a crisis.

Last week, as the police manhunt for Bourque progressed and the story developed, media provided a character sketch of the 24-year-old gun enthusiast based largely on social media, with national media outlets like CBC and CTV quoting the alleged shooter’s “anti-authoritarian mindset” based on his Facebook profile.

No doubt, Facebook is a safe bet for reporters working against a ticking clock to dig up information on unfamiliar actors in breaking news stories. While a story like Bourque’s is developing, sites like Facebook — with 14 million daily users in Canada in 2013, according to The Canadian Press — are a relatively fruitful mechanism for gathering information that is, at the very least, of known origin.

For years and for hundreds of stories on private citizens who became the focus of public attention — people who went missing, murder victims or armed suspects like Bourque — Facebook has been an endless image repository milked for newsreels.

Alleged sexual assault victim Rehtaeh Parsons’ online selfies were broadcast internationally after she committed suicide in April 2013. The same happened with Loretta Saunders, the 26-year-old Inuit woman from Labrador who was slain last February. Countless other previously private people have likewise had their profile pictures and tagged photos copied and pasted into television news stories.

According to guidelines set by the U.K.-based Press Complaints Commission (PCC), “It can be acceptable in some circumstances for the press to publish information taken from (social media) websites, even if the material was originally intended for a small group of acquaintances rather than a mass audience.

“This is normally, however, when the individual concerned has come to public attention as a result of their own actions, or are otherwise relevant to an incident currently in the news when they may expect to be the subject of some media scrutiny.”

However, depending on the context, broadcasting social media content originally intended for a known, controlled audience can  seem like an invasion of privacy. Posts like Bourque’s, which showed brazen hostility towards police and public authorities in general, seem relevant for publication, but seeing a selfie from 2011 appear on-screen during a story on a suicide victim plays as inconsiderate and insensitive.

It may be ripe for the picking, but Facebook content is quite often a poisoned fruit, which turns the stomachs of viewers watching the newest “duck face” used to illustrate the latest private citizen thrust under the microscope.

Moreover, Facebook profiles may be of our own making, but that doesn’t necessarily make their content accurate, much less worthy of broadcasting. Selfies, hashtags and statuses, while posted with the knowledge they will be available to a few hundred of our online friends and acquaintances, are rarely shared with the intention of having them scrutinized by an unchecked mass public audience.

What’s more, Facebook, a place that more often than not acts as an outlet for our bellyaching, a final resting place for all our unflattering tagged photos and a soapbox for our own self-promotion, is seldom an apt representation of who we really are.

Sure, Facebook content is easy to find, copy and paste, but that doesn’t make it worth propagating.

Journalism deals in facts. But Facebook can be anything but factual.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is a second-year journalism student at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at  patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.