I had wanted to talk about this yesterday on “Beat the Press,” but was unable to verify the facts in time. Today, the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reports on a controversy that has enveloped The Comment, the student newspaper at Bridgewater State University, which is under fire for reporting the name of an alleged rape victim who spoke at a public rally.
University officials are insisting that [see below] pressuring The Comment to remove the woman’s name from the online version of its story. But on Friday, The Comment’s editor, Mary Polleys, told me that the woman had been identified by name in an announcement sent before the rally to about 400 people via Facebook. The outdoor rally was attended by about 200 people. And, Polleys said, the woman was introduced by name and then proceeded to address the crowd through a bullhorn. Indeed, the story, by Leah Astore, is accompanied by a photo of the woman holding the bullhorn and standing before a large crowd.
I am not identifying the woman here only because I don’t wish to become a player in this controversy. But I see nothing wrong in what The Comment did, and I think Polleys has taken exactly the right stand in refusing to unpublish key details. Essentially The Comment is in trouble for committing journalism.
The one decision The Comment made that I might question is identifying the woman’s previous college on the basis of information that it found online. Under the ethical guidelines that are followed by virtually all news organizations, victims and alleged victims of sexual assault are not identified by name without their consent. It’s clear that the speaker at the rally had given her consent to be identified publicly, only to have second thoughts once she saw her name and photo in The Comment. But I’m uncomfortable with the paper’s decision to add details that the woman herself did not offer.
Another interesting aspect is the unintended consequences of what happens to news in the online era. If this story had appeared only in print, then it wouldn’t have circulated beyond campus, and it’s unlikely that it would have sparked much of an uproar. Certainly no one would be calling for the unpublishing of the woman’s name. (We recently talked about unpublishing on “Beat the Press.”) Indeed, this entire story strikes me as an example of the increasing confusion we’re all experiencing over what’s public and what’s private in the age of social media.
The Brockton Enterprise has been covering this story, and it appears to have a worthwhile follow-up today. I can’t get GateHouse stories to load today, but perhaps it will pop up later.
My friend Harvey Silverglate’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has gotten involved as well.
And the story has now gone national at JimRomenesko.com.
Note: Polleys informs me by email that though the administration is pressuring The Comment to remove the speaker’s name, it has not insisted on it. It’s a fine line, but it’s worth making the distinction. Needless to say, the administration is welcome to weigh in here as well.