To follow or not to follow … that is my question

As a journalist, there’s a certain duality to handling the people I cover. I want to be close enough to them so that they feel comfortable talking with me in any setting. But I also want to keep my distance to the point where I can comfortably consider myself an interested party, not a friend or even an acquaintance.

Obviously, reporter-source relationships are iffy enough.

But when you add in the dimension of social networking, it can get even fuzzier.

Because so much news these days happens via social-networking channels such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s not surprising that many reporters have taken to “friending” or “following” the subjects they cover. Invariably, some are charged with breaching journalistic ethics by having a subject considered a “friend.”

In most cases, I disagree. A Facebook “friend” is a meaningless, nominal title. After all, most of the names that populate my list of “friends” probably know I don’t consider them as such.

But at the collegiate level, just where can you draw the line between reporting and networking? If I were to “friend” or follow Player X, an underage player on the Maryland men’s soccer team, would he accept my request? And if he did, what tacit agreements would arise from this newly forged level of relation?

It can be a dicey question. It’s not hard to find athletes at this university who have posted Facebook photos of themselves drinking underage or participating in otherwise improper conduct. And to this point, there hasn’t been a compelling need to rat them out.

But if there ever is, I doubt it will outweigh the need not to rat them out. So much of journalism depends on the relationships you build and the sources you have. To risk both by spilling the beans on one solitary subject will ultimately do more harm than good.

Since their inception, social media have offered almost unprecedented transparency for a giant number of once-unavailable subjects. But for reporters like me, their existence also has added even more shades of gray to the relationships that we depend upon so regularly.

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