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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Accountability = Less Privacy?

I received an email from a young woman who made a mistake. She was arrested and charged with breaking and entering. The charges were dismissed, and the local newspaper wrote it up.

She has asked my advice re: her local newspaper's refusal to remove the story from the website. She is convinced this story will damage her employment prospects.

I'm repeating our exchange (but removing any identifying features). I think this is fairly typical of how our media are contributing to a rapidly but inevitably changing concept of privacy. I'd be interested in how others regard this young woman's dilemma and what responsibility does the newspaper have in this case.

Here is her email:

Dear Mr. Dvorkin,

I am writing to you because I need help. I was arrested back in (xxx) of this year for B&E. It was a stupid mistake and more-or-less a case of "curiosity killed the cat" - and what was supposed to be the night of my going away party, gone wrong. The charges have now been cleared and my issue is with a online news source - ......

I have contacted ...... regarding the police brief report they posted on their website which included my name and the charges. The article is now archived and when someone searches my name on Google, it is one of the hits that comes up.

Long story short, I made a really stupid mistake. I am a recent graduate of a... program from ... College. I worked hard for 3 years in the program to graduate at the top of my class with a 3.95GPA. I've also worked hard building a reputation for my photography work and have done many Pro Bono gigs for non-profits and small businesses. Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not a criminal and I've worked hard to get where I am.

I am writing to you to ask your advice. I have contacted the news editor, ..., as well as three other people within the ..... organization regarding my name in the archived article. I am now working for one of the largest law firms in Canada, and I don't want my name showing up under the police briefs when someone searches my name.

I've asked that they either remove the article, or edit the article to remove my name. I was told that this is public information and ... would not edit the article; however, ... did update the article to reflect the charges have been dropped (moving google priority in the search up and making things worse). I don't understand why ... will not edit the archived article - it brings no additional traffic to their site and provides serious consequences for myself.
After getting no results with the editor, I contacted three other people from the organization, all of which told me I would have to resolve the issue with (the editor).

Please help me. I know the information is public, but it's a matter of ethics and the repercussions the article has had, and will continue to have, on my reputation. I've done two days in jail, 2 months of bail conditions, lost out on a $400 train ticket, and have racked up $2,900 in lawyer fees and $500 in charges already because of this ordeal - not to mention the emotional stress. I want to be able to move on without having to worry about this article.

Please, any information or guidance you can provide me regarding this issue would be greatly appreciated.


Here is my response:

Dear Ms. .....,

I appreciate the dilemma and the frustration that you are facing. But I think that
overall, the online paper has been correct in not "unpublishing" the story.

News ombudsmen and media ethicists have wrestled over this
one ever since news organizations started posting everything on the internet.
Now that Google and Yahoo can aggregate everything in perpetuity, the question of
privacy has become everyone's dilemma. Recently, Kathy English, public editor at
the Toronto Star weighed in -

When you say "I don't understand why ... will not edit the archived article - it brings
no additional traffic to their site and provides serious consequences for myself",
you are missing the point. The issue here is not monetary. It is about the role of the media as a reflection of society.

If (....) did this for you, one could legitimately ask, "who else are they doing it for?"

As a general principle, the public's right to know should trump the need for privacy. Should it
in every case? There are always exceptions especially for people who are not in the public eye.

Should it in yours? As you say, you made a mistake that most people would say was
simply an instance of youthful foolishness and hijinks. Do you deserve to be punished beyond what is reasonable? Most people would say no, since your academic record and history of civic engagement seem to be exemplary.

However we live in an era where there is less privacy and more scrutiny.
In your case, the news organization did the right thing by noting that the charges
were dismissed. In addition, the new information is prominently displayed at the top of the story.

I sense your discomfort, but you can't have it both ways: the record has been
corrected; and at the same time, the record is now more evident.

If it is any consolation, in looking for your name on the (....) website, it was not readily apparent. Also when I did a search for your name on google, your usual social media links were shown. Nothing about the event in question.

My guess is that a prospective employer would have to dig fairly deep 
to be able to make the connection.

The consequences of your actions are probably minimal; the real consequence is that
you will have to live with uncertainty.

I wish you well, but I can't say that this has been handled incorrectly.

There is one other way you might proceed, which is to contact the Ontario Press Council and see if they might advocate for you. Their executive director is Don McCurdy and his email is


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