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Decision-making continues long after a story posts

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by Sarah Nichols, MJE
Does a story posted online lose value over time? Is it as important to our readers — and to our media organization — as it was when the story broke?

This important question was the editors’ first true test of the year in the student media program I advise. What first seemed like possible censorship led to a great discussion as they talked about whether to fulfill a request to remove a story posted almost exactly one year prior.

As with any scenario, I thought carefully about the factors when I got the call — in the middle of a different class period, an hour before heading out of town, shoveling down a Chobani as my only meal of the day. The editors responded to my text and said they would stop by in 15 minutes. How will the questions I pose shape their discussion, I wondered?

It doesn’t really matter, but the story in question covered the arrest of a teacher on charges of sexual relationship with a student, and it posted 12 hours after the arrest, creating the largest spike in readership the site had experienced. Two local news outlets linked to the story online, and the reporter was proud of her work on a delicate, controversial topic before much information was available.

In the year since that story, the police uncovered thousands of incriminating text messages, a second Jane Doe, FBI-level encryption software on the teacher’s computer and a slew of other evidence. The former teacher waived his right to a trial by jury. In some ways, the original story seemed irrelevant. Given our emphasis on the Web as a breaking news source compared to our feature-oriented news magazine, I suspected the editors would see this as a case of old news with little significance.

I’m so glad they proved me wrong.

The story stayed. Here are the questions they discussed:
• What mattered most about the story then? What matters most about the story now?
• Does the story still hold as truthful and accurate?
• Will readers want or need this information later? Can they get it elsewhere?
• Should we be afraid to report on issues that make our school look bad?
• Is the online news site less permanent than the news magazine?

The story lives on online, they said — much more so than it would have in print form, which by now would be recycled and forgotten. The story is still searchable and shows student reactions at a critical time in the story’s development: the beginning.

Removing the story, they said, would be like pretending it hadn’t posted, or worse, like the incident didn’t happen. One editor felt strongly that removing the story would be unfair to readers, raising ethical questions.

She said, “If we take this down, who’s to say we wouldn’t take down other stories, too? Why would we do that? If we knew it was worth writing and worth posting, and we stood behind the story then, we have to stand by it now.”

A great point, and a great reminder that student decision-making lasts far beyond the initial choice to report a story.

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Whitney editors, you have raised some very profound ethical questions. Excellent coverage of a very sensitive and local issue. When I read the comments I also realized that you took your readership to an important level of discussion about our judicial system. Don’t just take something down just because it makes people uncomfortable. You have done a sterling job of coverage and your readers deserve to continue to refer back to the coverage, and they will. Professional journalists could not have coveraed this story in a more professional way. Bravo!

  2. Thank you for your comments about our situation. Some people were worried that the story continues to make our school look bad now (a year later) and be compared to another nearby school going through the same thing currently. People didn’t want the reminder that it happened at our school “first” but we felt the story needed to stay. Thanks again!

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