Because of people’s willingness to share on social media, there is a plethora of good material that might not be obtainable through other means. This often creates dilemmas for reporters. Information on social media is public. In most instances, obtaining that information does not require a reporter to “friend” the person who posts it. However, platforms also allow their users to make their posts less accessible to those are aren’t their friends.
There should be limited expectation of privacy on a social media. As such, for people who do not privatize their accounts, whatever information obtained by a reporter is legally usable. The gray area is when a reporter decides to friend the source of their news. To “friend” someone on these websites suggests that their intentions are benign, though most sites do little to screen people with malicious motivations. Accepting friend requests are sometimes automated which foregoes the procedure of assessing the nature of the relationship. But simply put, whether a friend request was automatically accepted or not, to pose as a “friend” only to obtain information is equivalent to a reporter lying about his/her identity to and recording a conversation without informing other parties involved. Behavior like this should be reserved for serious criminal targets where the benefits of ousting the person outweigh the deceptive practice of an investigative reporter.
Also, worth considering is the idea that reporters should not write about their “friends” because of conflict of interest. If this reporter becomes a sincere friend to the target, then he/she is inevitably biased.
It was tough to find official guidelines for a reporter’s relationship with online sources. According to the Organization of News Ombudsman and Standards Editors, there is little agreement on specific social media behavior. The LA times specifies that if a reporter friends a group or source on one side of a debate, he must do so with the other side as well. On the other hand, the New York times states that being a friend on Facebook is almost meaningless. A such it is not the same kind of relationship that would pose a conflict of interest.