On September 16, 2009, Melissa Bailey sent a “friend request” through Facebook, the online social network, to Jessica Del Rocco. Bailey was the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news website, and Del Rocco was the ex-girlfriend of the man wanted by police for allegedly murdering a Yale pharmacology student, Annie Le. Le had disappeared on September 8, and her body had been found on September 13. The story had become a national media sensation, and the Independent, a grassroots publication with strong ties to New Haven, was at the forefront of the coverage.
Del Rocco accepted the friend request, giving Bailey access to her Facebook posts known as “status updates.” Here, “behind the wall,” Del Rocco had responded to the news that her ex-boyfriend, Raymond Clark, was the murder suspect. As Bailey read Del Rocco’s posts, she was riveted—this was great material. Independent reporters also had a six-year-old police report filed by Del Rocco in which she alleged that Clark had “forced her to have sex.” The police report alone was big news, but Del Rocco’s comments on Facebook helped to “fill out the picture,” says Bailey, and brought the story up to date.
Bailey could be confident that no other journalist had Del Rocco’s name, much less access to her Facebook musings. But the comments were visible only to her online “friends”: was it ethical to use them in a news story? “It wasn’t a traditional interview with clear-cut rules,” Bailey says. Should the Independent consider Del Rocco’s comments private, or semi-private, or public? Which rules applied to each category? Granted, Del Rocco had accepted the friend request and had allowed Bailey to maintain that status even after the reporter identified herself as such. Could this be construed as consent to use the online material? In any case, did the Independent have to guard Del Rocco’s identity?
By the end of 2009, these kinds of questions were increasingly frequent for journalists as social networking on the Web blurred the line between public and private. As she considered her options, Bailey could look to previous occasions when the public-private nature of the Web had created ethical questions for Independent journalists—including a very recent incident—but none of these was quite analogous. The Independent, like many media outlets, had yet to form policies to guide its coverage of online social networks, addressing issues instead on an ad hoc basis.
The decision wasn’t Bailey’s alone. She consulted with Paul Bass, the Independent’s creator and editor. Would the news outlet settle for a half a scoop and write only about the police report? Or would it also report on Del Rocco’s Facebook comments, effectively sharing them with the world?