To expunge ‘youthful indiscretions.’ Or not.

An opinion

Dr. David Loomis, Editor, The HawkEye

David Loomis, Editor, The HawkEye

By David Loomis

Two recent opinion pieces in The HawkEye written by Indiana University of Pennsylvania journalism student Samuel Posega [“’Faders’ darken IUP’s social-media door,” March 27; “On being public enemy No. 1,” April 16] identified by name (or by pseudonym) IUP student users of the social-media app FADE. The identifications were attributed to photos posted to the app and to correspondence between Posega and the students.

The two published opinion pieces drew large numbers of readers, including two students who asked me to strike their names from the articles. One request was couched in a veiled legal threat and the other in vague allegations of unethical journalism. Posega produced correspondence and associated evidence that refuted the allegations of unprofessional, unethical or defamatory practice.

But what of the reputations of the two students? This appears to be a growing concern among people who have engaged in what are euphemistically called “youthful indiscretions.”

When the indiscreet awaken to the consequences of their conduct, they may look for Orwellian ways to erase the record. An Indiana, Pa., attorney, for example, has tapped this market by advertising services for “expungement,” in which arrests and convictions of first-time offenders are wiped from the public record. The borough’s police chief last year reported that a stack of expungement paperwork is a constant on his desk. Got a “negative search results” problem? The marketplace offers solutions for you.

So, should The HawkEye follow suit and erase truthful reporting about online bullies who take offense at their image in the mirror held up to them by Posega? I found some advice in a recent column posted by a professional ethicist employed by Poynter.org, a respected educational non-profit organized to improve the profession of journalism. (Disclosure: The late news publisher Nelson Poynter, who founded the organization that bears his name, is a former employer of mine.)

The column addressed “public shaming,” defined as “openly humiliating someone as punishment for a certain behavior.”

The ethicist, Kelly McBride, distinguished between good shaming and bad shaming. An example of the bad – or “shaming soley for the sake of shaming” – occurred last year when a London public-relations executive Tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Her 170 Twitter followers quickly spread the word. When she landed in Cape Town 11 hours later, she had been shamed across the Internet, her family had been humiliated, and she had been fired.

And what is good shaming? “When a shaming does have hints of social value, professional news people will separate themselves from the mob by adding context and clearly articulating a journalistic purpose,” McBride wrote.

On that last point, The HawkEye may have fallen short. In the first of the two FADE columns, author Posega provided context by referring to “this past IUPatty’s party weekend.” That would be the weekend of March 20-21 when the annual student-arranged revel drew a small army of police in a modestly successful effort to prevent the sort of drunken brawling that gave the university a black eye a year earlier.

Additional context would have elaborated on the community-wide issue of IUP student conduct. For example, it became a central political issue in the November 2013 election campaign of borough Council President Nancy Jones.

Shortly after a rowdy IUP Homecoming weekend, Jones won re-election on a platform that pledged to crack down on student misbehavior. Since then, pronouncements from university officials have dissociated the school from the I-Usually-Party people and have suggested that bad behavior by students reflects dimly on their school and diminishes the value of their degrees.

So, when bad student behavior migrates from the street to social media, should it be soft-pedaled? Or expunged? Should The HawkEye erase its reporting of it?

This question was put to students in my Journalism Law & Ethics class on April 23. The consensus of that discussion: Posega’s reporting in his opinion pieces had social value, he separated himself from the mob on FADE, and it had a defensible journalistic purpose. On reflection, though, I would add that the defensible purpose should have been clearer.

Now, I hope, it is.

David Loomis, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

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