The good folks at Mzinga asked me to write a blog post about this. I’m cross-posting it here.
As a former journalist now in the online community business, I’m intrigued by the case of Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The Plain Dealer used registration information from its Cleveland.com message boards to link the judge to anonymous statements about some of her cases. In doing so, the paper has triggered a debate about the ethics of using information from the business side of the paper as a source for stories generated by the editorial side.
The business side of the paper — specifically, those with custody of the registration information – failed in their duty to protect users’ registration information. But I don’t think the editorial side of the paper did anything wrong.
First, a few facts:
The episode started out with an investigation into comments about a relative of a Plain Dealer reporter that were posted on Cleveland.com. That investigation found that a user that was commenting about some of Judge Saffold’s cases had registered using the judge’s own AOL email account. The paper later found that Judge Saffold’s court-issued computer had been used to access Cleveland.com at the times and dates that three of the comments in question were posted. Judge Saffold denies posting the comments. The judge’s 23-year-old daughter claims she authored them. The Plain Dealer published a story detailing all of this.
At the very least, Judge Saffold is guilty of poor judgment (pardon the unintentional pun) by letting her daughter use her court-issued computer. If it turns out she’s hiding something (and the circumstances suggest that may be the case), she could be guilty of misconduct. Because of this, this is absolutely a legitimate news story. No doubt about it.
So we’re left with the question of whether the Plain Dealer reporters were acting properly by using the registration information of a Cleveland.com user. I believe they did. My problem is with the Cleveland.com people that made the information available to the editorial side of the house.
Journalists are duty-bound to report on information of interest to the public. Granted, there are sensible caveats like suppressing the names of sexual assault victims. But this isn’t such a case. If the Plain Dealer had this information and failed to report on it, they would have been failing their readers.
The administrators of the Cleveland.com message board are under a different kind of obligation: An obligation to protect private information.
One could argue that Cleveland.com had the legal right to do what they did. Their User Agreement does have a passage that one could interpret as allowing this (“…you grant us…license to use…your identity and information about you…for any purpose…”). But a reasonable person registering for the Cleveland.com message boards would rightfully expect that their personal information be afforded a bit more protection than that.
I know that the separation between editorial and business functions I call for are more theoretical than practical. The fact is that the editorial people that manage Cleveland.com most likely have access to users’ registration information, so there was no business-side person in a position to allow or disallow the editorial side’s request to see this information. But that doesn’t excuse Cleveland.com from their responsibility to protect user information.
Reporters are insistent (and rightly so) that the business side of the house keep its hands off the editorial side. The case of Judge Saffold and the Plain Dealer shows that there are cases where it’s a two-way street.
It turns out that Advance Internet, which operates Cleveland.com, has blocked editors from reviewing the email addresses of message board posters. Good for them.
More in this column from Plain Dealer reader representative Ted Diadiun. (Note that Diadiun maintains there was nothing wrong with how Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer handled themselves.)