The Cleveland Plain Dealer made one of those fateful first steps that ends in a journey to ethics no-man’s land when it decided to check the e-mail address of a repeat anonymous commenter on the paper’s website. “lawmiss” had been especially abusive in comments about one of the newspaper’s reporters, so instead of just deleting the comment for violating the site’s rules against personal attacks, an enterprising editor tracked down its source.
That first step was unethical. Defenders are arguing that the Plain Dealer had every right to check the address because the poster had violated the terms of posting, but that’s a rationalization. The editor checked after the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter, not just any individual, was attacked in the comment. The issue isn’t breaking a promise, privacy or compromising confidentiality, it is fairness, equity, and disclosure: the paper’s staff applied an improvised, previously unannounced standard to a comment relating to the family of one of its own. We cannot know if it would have done the same with a comment that savaged someone else, but the action creates the appearance of a double standard.. If the paper’s policy is to delete comments that cross the line when they attack non-employees, but will investigate the commenter when comments impugn a staffer, it should announce the policy in clear terms. Even today, what is the paper’s current policy? How would I know, as a commenter, that the consequences of crossing a specific line will be having an editor track my identity down, as opposed to only pulling the comment? What IS the line? Is it a personal attack? A potentially libelous attack? A personal attack on a non-public figure? An attack on a relative of a famous person? An attack on a Plain Dealer staffer’s relative?Is my e-mail going to be used to investigate me, or not? If so, under what conditions?
I have no ethical problem with any of these policies, as long as they are disclosed before a comment is made.
After the initial ethics foul, things really got messy. The e-mail address turned out to be that of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, and “lawmiss” had also offered opinions on three of Judge Saffold’s cases, including two death-penalty cases. The Plain Dealer inquired further, and the judge denied posting the comments. Finally her daughter confessed to sending some of them.
Bob Steele, a journalism ethicist with the Poynter Institute, and Rebecca Jeschke, of the online privacy rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, both questioned the paper’s use of a commenter’s supposedly private e-mail address given only to validate her comment for reporting purposes. They are wrong. Once the newspaper knew that a local judge might be unethically using a false name to comment on her own cases and manipulate public opinion anonymously, it had a duty to investigate further, and the identity of “lawmiss” was officially news. The paper could not go back and erase the results of its initial ethics mistake, checking the e-mail address in the first place. It had a journalistic job to do.
When illegal or unethical acts are discovered by illegal or unethical means, the acts are not mitigated by the means of their discovery, and the means are not justified by what they uncovered. Recent examples of this principle: the e-mail hacking at East Anglia University uncovering messages between climatologists that called their integrity, methods and honesty into question, and the James O’Keefe “sting” of ACORN offices, which was unethical in numerous ways yet still uncovered damaging evidence of ACORN’s poor management and oversight.
To be concise, if not simple: the Plain Dealer did the right thing, even though it only had the opportunity because it had done the wrong thing first.
[Special thanks and appreciation to the Plain Dealer’s John Kroll, whose comment below helped me clarify the original post.]