Minnesota Daily Makes *Tough* Online Ethics Decision

In the mega-huge photo above the story, the student is smiling.  From the story and caption, we quickly learn the student’s age (23), his origins (Tunisia), his academic concentration while studying at the University of Minnesota (English literature), his first name (Ashref), and even the style and color of his shoes (red Keds).

In late July, when The Minnesota Daily originally ran the story on the study abroad experiences of Ashref and almost two dozen other North African students, readers also knew his last name and the last names of certain family members.

Now that info has been cut and this editor’s note, in bold, sits atop the piece: “The last name of the main subject of this story, Ashref, and his family members has been removed from this story since its original publication. The source became concerned of the negative implications that may come from speaking critically of the Tunisian government and its programs upon his return to his home country.”

After the piece was published and placed online, Daily eds. were contacted not only by the student but also university officials and the U.S. State Department about removing various identifying information in the piece, already published- proving as a separate editor’s note confirmed that, unlike print news, content disseminated online is “no longer written in stone.”

In the words of Holly Miller, the paper’s editor in chief: “This situation presented the Daily with an unfamiliar dilemma. What do we do when a source — who may not have understood the American media process and who might be in physical danger or danger of being repressed by his government — wants something removed or changed after publication?”

My Take: Obviously, in most cases the decision needs to be ‘no changes allowed,’ especially in respect to the most common related requests- people simply having a change of heart about something said or done or sources’ concerns over embarrassing Google results.  But I do believe the paper acted properly in this instance.

The story is still up.  Even the huge photo of Ashref above it still stands.  And Ashref is still named in the piece, sans last name.  Ultimately, the removal of his last name and a few family members’ names does not change the bottom-line nature of the story.  And Miller and her fellow eds. are also respecting that rock-solid online ethics are still murky and that people still need to be protected from speaking their minds in certain parts of the world and from a lack of understanding about “the American media process.”  Staffers rightly consulted an ethics expert.  They fully explained their decision.  And they have publicly stated that they understand not everyone will be in agreement about it.

Obviously, this decision needs to be one in a million.  I do believe this one is correct.

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