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Public Editor: A valuable lesson in using social media for journalism

Sylvia Stead is The Globe's first-ever public editor.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Years ago, reporters used to take to the streets to ask people their opinions on all kinds of subjects. In journalism, these are called "streeters." You would do a streeter if you wanted to know what people thought of how the Canucks' season was going or how much they were planning to spend at Christmas.

Today, a journalist can conduct a streeter without leaving the office. This week, Globe and Mail editors reached out via the Globe Life Facebook page for feedback on a story about the growing number of people who buy themselves gifts at Christmas time, offering a reporter's e-mail address to anyone who wanted to respond. This is a routine practice in the Life Section. It's a way to engage readers about their day-to-day experiences. The subject, like others covered in the section, requires no special expertise to comment. One reader chatted with the reporter via e-mail about her plans to buy herself a gift as she was shopping for her fiancé's Christmas present. The reporter asked for the reader's name, age, city and occupation. She also asked to talk with her by phone. The woman said she couldn't take a phone call because she had a young child who might interrupt but did say she was a lawyer.

After the story was published, another journalist e-mailed The Globe to ask whether this woman was really a lawyer. She is not listed as a lawyer in Ontario. She wasn't truthful in the interview. Would it have been harder for her to deceive the reporter in person, during a streeter? It's impossible to know, but this case raises questions about social media as a reporting tool. Arts and Life Editor Gabe Gonda says journalists in his department face an interesting challenge because, unlike reporters covering business or politics, they must often seek out and rely upon sources who aren't pre-vetted, coming with official titles and e-mail addresses. This situation, Mr. Gonda said, doesn't call for Life to abandon the use of social media in seeking subjects and sources. Instead, it's a reminder that editors and reporters should do all they can to confirm the identities of the people they quote.

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The Globe is running a correction on Page 2 of the newpaper on Saturday and the error has been fixed online.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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