No longer written in stone

Online distribution of news content presents new ethical challenges.

Since going online, The Minnesota Daily has received numerous inquiries from sources âÄî and even employees âÄî asking for the removal of online articles for a number of reasons, including change of opinion, regret, or fear of it being found in a Google search by potential employers. But, in a rare circumstance, the Daily recently removed the last name of a source in an online article to protect that source. It is normally the policy of the Daily to remove only inaccurate material off the Web, which typically results in a correction in the next print edition and an editorâÄôs note online. It is highly unlikely an article would be removed at the request of a source. Hence, once something is posted on the Internet, there are no guarantees that the original version of the article still doesnâÄôt remain out there for someone to find âÄî which sources often resent. The July 29 issue of The Minnesota Daily featured an article, âÄúTunisian visitor shares U.S. views,âÄù about a Tunisian student who spent a month studying at the University of Minnesota as a part of a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department intended for future leaders of nations across the world. The reporter, Katherine Lymn, initially met obstacles. She found many students studying here from Northern Africa feared using their names because of potential repercussions from their native governments. But one source agreed with Lymn to use his full name on the record. The article ran in our print edition and was also featured online, as all of our stories are. Between July 29 and July 31 the reporter and myself each received a phone call from the program coordinator at the University and I engaged in a handful of discussions with the U.S. State Department. Both parties were concerned about the story. The State Department representative said Ashref began to regret using his full name, not realizing the negative implications his comments about the Tunisian government and education system could have on his family. Ashref asked that the online version of the story be removed. This situation presented the Daily with an unfamiliar dilemma. What do we do when a source âÄî who may not have understood the American media process and who might be in physical danger or danger of being repressed by his government âÄî wants something removed or changed after publication? Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, is an expert in dealing with ethical dilemmas in journalism and he advised us on this issue. Steele said our situation was unique, but that whatever solution we came to would likely be âÄúimperfect.âÄù Steele said the dissemination of news content on the Internet presents news organizations with fresh dilemmas. âÄúIt has created a new form and new intensity of problems for journalists, and this has been an issue at virtually every newspaper,âÄù he said. I ultimately decided to remove AshrefâÄôs last name from the online edition out of concern for his safety. In the days of print only, it was unlikely for a source to come back and ask for all remaining versions of the paper to be burned or removed from libraries. There used to be a sense of permanency with print versions, Steele said. The Internet changed that. Steele also said he advises journalists to be clear up front about the distribution of the story. We cannot assume everyone knows it will be online, he said. Accordingly, I challenge both our reporters and our interviewees to have more in-depth conversations about these issues early on in the interviewing process. And while some journalists argue that giving this warning will make sources shy away from being interviewed, many sources appreciate the discussion, Steele said. The more conversation about a sourceâÄôs concerns prior to publication, the more that can be done to avoid the angst and frustration that comes in dealing with these situations after publication. The Daily is committed to publishing accurate news that serves our readers and to do that we need our sources to feel comfortable with talking to our reporters. Holly Miller is the Editor in Chief of The Minnesota Daily. She welcomes comments at [email protected]