Tainted by Google Forever
Seattle attorney Shakespear Feyissa was accused of attempted sexual assault while attending Seattle Pacific University in 1998. He was never charged with a crime and naturally, not convicted. But since the allegations were covered in the school paper’s online edition they are cached in Google and easily uncovered for anyone who searches his name.
According to Barney, the SPU people agreed to remove the archived article, but Chris Durr, the editor of The Falcon Newspaper refused, calling it censorship.
We explained to them, if they wanted to start down a path of removing historical archives and pulling it from the public sphere, what they’re doing is censorship. We basically said, sorry, we have principles in journalism that don’t allow us to put stuff in the memory hole and pretend it never happened.
Now it unclear to me whether this should be chalked up to a kid who has yet to grasp the impact of the written word, especially when that word will be available in perpetuity, on real people. Chance are, he's full of the "principles of journalism," swollen with importance over his firm stance in the face of administrative pressure. Or is this blind adherence to theoretical ethics, ignoring the fact that the paper failed to complete the circle by publishing the part where the allegations never resulted in a prosecution.
From the Seattle Times:
"Shakespear Feyissa may not like the story, but that doesn't mean he should get to dictate what gets removed from a newspaper's online archive," Debra Smith, who wrote the original article, said in an e-mail. She now writes for The Herald in Everett and teaches a journalism class at SPU. "A newspaper serves as the paper of record for a community. I don't think that function changes when the content moves online."
But having published damning accusations, there's a flip side to these principles. Maybe she missed that day in class. Removing allegations that have never been proven to be true isn't censorship, but sound judgment in light of the circumstances. And as it now stands, the "paper of record" presents only part of a story, the part that harms someone against whom allegations have never been proven. Not much of record.
Of course, there are other alternatives as well, such as noting in an update to the archived article that the person was never charged or convicted, and therefore has never had the opportunity to refute the charges. Perhaps noting that allegations are not proof of any wrongdoing. The point is, they put out the bad stuff and this is the information that will taint him forever.
This particular issue is close to my heart, having seen many lives destroyed by the wide dissemination of initial allegations against people, with little or no mention when the cases are dropped or the accused is acquitted. People's lives are ruined in the first few days after the allegations spread, and there's no way to put the genie back in the bottle.
It would be censorship to forbid a newspaper, even a student newspaper, to print serious allegations. But the fact that they are perpetuated through Goggle whenever the accused's name appears is like stabbing him in the heart again and again. Forever.
Here's another "principle of journalism" for editor Durr to consider: The public is not served by perpetuating undeserved harm. Figure out a way that Feyissa won't have to suffer the taint of student ethical bravado for the rest of his life.