Last week Jezebel set out to shame some high school students for the stupid, offensive things they wrote as minors on their Twitter accounts while the president was being re-elected. But in doing so, the site itself crossed the line of appropriate behavior.
At this point no one is surprised when Gawker Media violates standard journalism practices. But Jezebel’s piece about racist high schoolers, with its journalist-sanctioned public shaming of kids, is so out of line it’d be comical if it wasn’t so downright depressing.
Titled "Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets about the 'Nigger' President," the piece even lists the high schools of the offending teens and their extracurricular activities.
As a rule, journalists writing for traditional newspapers never print the name of a minor when that minor is accused of a crime. On the Internet, however, stupid things minors say is fair game, apparently.
Playing By Different Rules?
GigaOm writer Mathew Ingram, in his piece about the resulting controversy, reached out to the Jezebel writer, who happens to be the co-founder of the site. She argued that because the minor’s names were already out there, it is okay to use them. (Jezebel did not blur the names, or block them out. Jezebel ran the entire name and the schools the minors attend.)
“We actually did not 'out' the identities of these tweeters — they did, through their public Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles,” wrote Tracie Egan Morrissey to Ingram, in defense of the post. “They used their real names, listed their schools and their locations, and thus broadcasted these details to the entire world by virtue of putting them on the Internet.”
This is troublesome on a variety of levels, but the majority of people in the digital press world feel Morrisey’s way of thinking is legitimate. I spent Friday debating with two writers from Buzzfeed about this. They all echoed Morrisey’s statement. (Which is typical for writers at digital outlets, so why I was surprised, I don't know ...)
No, Sorry, It's Still Wrong To Name Minors
But here is why Morrisey and her ilk are simply, unquestionably wrong.
When a minor commits a crime in the real world, the cops know who the kid is, as do the neighbors and everyone in the community. The journalist covering the crime knows the kid's name, and if anyone wanted to, they could find out the minor’s name just by pulling up the public police report.
But why doesn’t the journalist use the minor’s name in the press, if it is such common knowledge, and publicly accessible to whoever wants it?
I reached out to Lou Carlozo, a father of two and longtime newspaper reporter who works at Reuters now but previously spent 15 years at the Chicago Tribune and before that was a police reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
His answer was simple. Minors are not named because journalists have a duty to protect them from harm of coverage.
“There is a big difference between the dumb things that kids do in the course of growing up and the harmful, damaging crimes a minor might commit that are a matter of public record," Carlozo said in a brief phone interview. “As a police reporter and later an editor, I always decided to name juveniles in a story on a case-by-case basis.”
Carlozo would only publish the name of the minor if the juvenile had been convicted, but not every time because “you have to ask yourself about relevant details, such as the minor’s mental state at the time," he said.
Carlozo concedes that "these rules were written before the Internet," but says that in the case of Jezebel outing the minors: "Just because the kids' names are out there, journalists shouldn’t necessarily fall in line and release their names too.”
Remember, juveniles who have committed a crime are in the public record as well, but journalists choose to not print that information. Carlozo summed it up by saying, “The system has the obligation to protect these kids.”
As Kashmir Hill pointed out in her Forbes blog post about the controversy, Morrissey had no intention of protecting the children. In fact, Morrissey was actively, “gleefully,” trying to harm her subjects. “[T]he tone of the piece is such that it’s apparent the writer wanted to shame and punish them for broadcasting their ugly, offensive messages,” Hill writes.
Morrissey, as a journalist far removed from these juveniles lives, wanted to teach them a lesson. Not keen to leave that job to the parents, teachers and coaches, Morrissey has now forever linked those names with racist epithets for the rest of their lives -- old school journalism ethics be damned.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.