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Why (Some of) the Wall Street Journal's Social Media Rules Are Right

There's quite a bit of buzz today over the set of social media rules set forth earlier this week for Wall Street Journal reporters by its management (and published by Editor and Publisher), because they raise a lot of questions about the role of the journalist within the communities he or she reports about.

While it's crucial for reporters to build community through social media, they also have special reasons for some caution. (Though I admit the stricture on mixing business and pleasure on Twitter is a bit over the top -- what do they think their staff is made up of? Report-bots?) However, the knee-jerk, in the social media circles in which I travel, is that reporters, like everyone else, must be open, open, open, and, frankly, that really can't apply to a crucial part of the journalist's business -- the confidential source.

For instance, the New York-based venture capitalist Fred Wilson disagrees on his blog today with a Journal caution to consult with one's editor before friending sources because it's "akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex." He writes:

Most journalists are going to have hundreds to thousands of "friends" in social media. And that is how it should be. We are all putting our rolodexes out there into the public domain. That's one of the trades you make with social media. You publish your social graph in return for getting the power that comes from doing that. And it is not going to be clear who your sources were on a particular story from a list of hundreds to thousands of "friends".
The problem with treating journalists like everyone else is that their unidentified sources often have their businesses, jobs or even lives on the line. Therefore, it's the clandestine nature of these relationships that make them work. A source who believes they may be outed isn't a source for very long -- without that promise of confidentiality, they won't be willing to share the information that is so crucial not just to the journalism business, but to ensuring the news media isn't just an outlet for the official voices across government and industry.

The nature of having confidential information is that few people know it -- that's why it's confidential. Therefore, it's naive to think that "It is not going to be clear who your sources were on a particular story" from a list of hundreds of thousands. If a company that is riddled with news leaks wants to go on a witch hunt for who was behind it, the list of potential suspects is already pretty small. Being able to cross-check that list across a reporter's list of Facebook friends, even if they have thousands of them, isn't exactly difficult. And even if the leaker is never fully identified, do you really think they are going to feel comfortable about having their smiling thumbnail photo appearing under a reporter's list of "friends"? I don't think so.

So what is the role of the reporter in social media? I think those of us who are actively involved in it ask ourselves that every day. To me, it's being a curator of the content that's of interest to me and my audience -- whether I wrote it or not; to also use my friend and follower base as a news feed to get a constant, real-time window into the issues that are on their minds, and, to collaborate on stories, which is one area in which I disagree with the Journal. However, reporters have to find ways to do all of this without publishing every aspect of their Rolodex. They need to be able to maintain public, and private, communities.

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