The Plain Dealer And The Ethics Of Disclosure

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live: The Plain Dealer And The Ethics Of Disclosure. Here it is:

One of may favorite newspapers, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is embroiled in a controversy that raises some important questions, few of which have easy answers.

Reporters at that paper have long run critical stories highlighting some of what they have termed “unusual actions” by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. These range from odd dispute resolution strategies (ordering lawyers in a civil suit to remain in a conference room for days until they settled their clients’ disagreement) to more serious suggestions of wrongdoing (“the judge routinely diverted dozens of criminal cases to one Cleveland lawyer and authorized him to collect questionable fees, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to taxpayers,” says the Plain Dealer).

Gavel by Flickr user walknboston
Gavel by Flickr user walknboston

Today, the Plain Dealer reported that “Someone using a personal e-mail account of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold has written anonymous, opinionated online comments relating to some of the judge’s high-profile cases.” These comments were written as responses to the Plain Dealer’s online articles and blogs under the handle “lawmiss.” The judge’s daughter has stepped forward and taken responsibility for the lawmiss comments, but her admission appears to hold little water.

The Plain Dealer discovered the Saffold connection by examining registration information on the posted comments. The Plain Dealer allows anonymous comments, in order to keep the online conversation “freewheeling.” An outside firm administers the commenting functions.

The Dilemma

While this reminds me of a situation we faced at the community blog I co-manage, Rockville Central, things are different here and it makes the decision faced by the Cleveland editors more difficult. At Rockville Central, where we faced the issue of someone posting comments under multiple aliases, we do not allow anonymous posting so there is no presumption of privacy. And — more to the point —  the person in question was not a public figure, like Saffold, with the authority of a judge.

The Plain Dealer editors had a tough call, and answer a number of tough questions. On the one hand, some of the questions would seem to argue that the Plain Dealer overstepped:

  1. Given that anonymous commenting is allowed, is it OK for reporting staff to look at identifying information on blog commenters?
  2. Is it OK to divulge such information when it’s discovered, even when it is denied and someone else comes forward? (The newspaper obviously seems to believe that Saffold herself was responsible for the comments).

On the other hand, another question suggest that the Plain Dealer did the right thing:

  1. When a public figure who is part of government seemingly engages in wrongdoing, or even when their family is implicated, isn’t this news and shouldn’t it be reported?

Different people might decide this dilemma differently, but you can make a strong argument that both courses of actions are right in their way. It’s a right-vs.-right dilemma.

One outcome of the Plain Dealer situation is that the company administering the comment functions is taking steps to make sure reporters and editorial staff can’t see the identifying information of commenters. This is something that should have been in place already.

While this is a high-profile and high-stakes dilemma, public leaders at all level face dilemmas like this every day and will continue to do so as the social web continues to evolve. More and more, as individual leaders, we are given power over others’ personal information and stories.

Public leaders and the organizations they head need to have policies in place and understand the consequences of what they are doing. Divulging people’s information is not always wrong — but it needs to be done with full awareness of the competing values in play.

3 thoughts on “The Plain Dealer And The Ethics Of Disclosure”

  1. Good post, Brad. I have no easy answers, and I understand news companies’ desire to allow anonymous commenting both as a way to compete with the rest of the free-wheeling web and as a way for people to say things they might not feel comfortable saying otherwise.

    However (and I say this as someone who has worked both in traditional journalism and in the opinion blogosphere), newspapers have higher standards for their reporting than opinion-oriented blog sites. Newspapers still use anonymous sources sparingly, and editorial boards generally refuse to run anonymous letters to the editor in their print editions. So I am not sure why newspapers decided to allow anonymous commenting on their websites to begin with.

    Just as journalism is now wrestling with whether it was wise to give away content online, editors and publishers now need to consider online commenting policies, too.

    If anonymous commenting was forbidden, surely sources would still find a way to interact with reporters through back channels just as they’ve always done.

    Banning anonymous comments could be a gamble for traffic-conscious publishers. But it could well lead even more people to read their local newspaper online, if they knew they wouldn’t be wading into a cesspool every time they view comments.

  2. Julie, you make a really good point about the need to “unwind” some of the anonymity that we earlier decided was good for us. (Or at least good for traffic.)

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