“Facebook is a journalist’s rolodex,” said Facebook journalism program manager Vadim Lavrusik. No longer a walled garden, reporters can now search through Facebook’s database of more than 1 billion people for sources and connect with readers without accepting a friend request. These two changes, Lavrusik said, have changed everything about the way journalists can use the social network to report the news.
In a recent interview, Lavrusik explained how Facebook’s search bar, Graph Search, “is an incredible tool for finding sources and discovering content for your stories.” Announced earlier this year, Graph Search allows users to find people, places, and things on Facebook by typing in simple phrases and whittling the results by demographics such as age and location as well as interests.
For finding people, journalists can type in phrases like “College students in New York, NY” and “People who work at Facebook and like the New York Times” to target a group of people if they don’t have a specific person in mind. From there, examining a person’s profile information such as a friends list or relationship status can be a starting point for verifying his or her identity.
In his own reporting, Lavrusik, who has written for Mashable and Poynter and worked on social media for the New York Times, has found that sending Facebook messages to sources is a good place to start. In fact, direct messages are less threatening to the recipients than cold-calling them on the phone. “As a journalist, Facebook can humanize you and make you look more relatable,” he said, explaining that when people can look at your profile and get a sense of who you are before they respond, they are more comfortable answering your questions.
Journalists should never take a profile at face value. Last month, after reddit users misidentified missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as suspect number two in the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt, his family had to take down his Facebook page to stop the hateful comments from users.
Facebook is also a good source of eye-witness videos and photos that journalists can discover and request to use in their stories, said Lavrusik. For example, a search for “photos taken in Breezy Point” conjures more 1,000 images of the New York City neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Connecting with Readers
Because friendships on Facebook are built on personal connections with other people in the real world, journalists might not be as willing to devote their personal accounts to their jobs. In December 2012, Facebook adopted Twitter’s convention of giving users the option to let others “follow” them without sending a friend request, which keeps friends and readers on separate tracks.
Following reporters is a potential area of growth for Facebook as a news platform. In the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2012 report, 70 percent of respondents said they got their news links from family and friends on Facebook compared to the 13 percent that got referrals from news organizations and journalists on Facebook. That’s not to say that friend recommendations aren’t valuable. The same study revealed that digital news consumers are twice as likely to follow news recommendations from Facebook than from Twitter.
The Future of Facebook as a Storytelling Platform
With a longer character limit than Twitter (around 60,000 characters compared to Twitter’s 140), Facebook stories can unfold in real-time through text, images, and videos on the Page or serve as a preview for a longer article on a news website. Stories told on Facebook benefit also from community dialogue through comments, likes, and shares, Lavrusik said.
Facebook recently launched a media portal for journalists to aid in their storytelling, with reports on best practices for journalists and media companies, as well as a case study on how Slate magazine doubled its Facebook referrals between the second quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.
Lavrusik hopes that Facebook can help with “the ultimate goal of journalism,” he said, which is “informing people.”