Thursday, May 14, 2009

College newspapers face requests from alumni to suppress material, as alumni fear employers will find the "unfavorable" material in search engines

Now we have a story by Sam Guzik on “Politics Daily”, “Alumni Look to Erase Search Results from College Papers”, link here.

College newspapers are being asked to remove contributions or stories that might place students in a bad light for job searches. And this is putting them in an ethical dilemma, from a journalism perspective. “You can’t just rewrite history.”

The problem has to do with employer and sometimes graduate school “background checks” of students with search engines, which obviously can go beyond social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace and look at conventional web articles and stories.

I’ve three people contact me over ten years over small matters on my sites, but in each case the specific circumstances were unusual and probably warranted removal of a small piece of text or of a name.

For example, people go to certain political meetings, and don’t want their names reported on the Internet as having attended, and do not realize that they could be. This was more common a few years ago before people understood how permanent digital records are and how easy it is for minor information to get “leveraged.” The development of social networking sites around 2004 probably called attention to the problem.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the problem “Alumni Try to Rewrite History on College-Newspaper Web Sites,” by Steve Kolowich, link here. Apparently a paper by a former student in the Daily Collegian at Penn State on “hook up culture on campus” was used later by a white supremacist group to attack her standing as a journalist when she worked for the York Daily Record (York is a small city south of Harrisburg). Another story concerned a lawyer who had been charged with burglary at Cornell and then cleared. But that sort of situation has occurred in the public era concerning individuals suspected and named (even by the FBI) as “persons of interest” in connection with major crimes or terrorist incidents and later clear. The digital record of the accusations remains forever, because the historical fact is that the accusation was made.

A more bizarre story concerned a Marine who was afraid that his contributions in The Emory Wheel could cause him problems if found by fellow soldiers in the military. And this was just over opinion pieces. People have been pilloried when others learn that they hold “political incorrect” views (along the lines of John Stossel and “you can’t talk about that”), especially in some communities with strong “speech codes.” (Indeed, that’s the case with the York reporter, in reverse.) But it can get worse. Imagine what would happen if someone joined the military and then a piece in which he or she stated homosexual orientation and published long before joining surface on a search engine while in the military (the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy). Remember, finding the combination of the word "gay" and a person's name in a search result doesn't mean that the person is gay or claimed to be; you have to read what the file really says.

Newspapers, especially college papers, do have a dilemma. They will fix factual errors, but to remove material that is factually accurate and that had been made public would violate the standards of journalism. It is much more difficult to change the content of a newspaper in these circumstances than to change a social network profile or personal blog.

Some schools, such as the University of Kansas (The Daily Kansan) – where I attended graduate school myself – have taken to “darkening” pages – changing robot-related metatags so that they do not get or stay indexed by search engines.

Another ethical dilemma may exist for material published in the mid 1990s, before students could reasonably have understood that material could stay out there forever and remain indexed forever, and be published by anyone under “free entry”, to be indexed (I coined the term “leveraging” for this problem). Search engines didn’t really start to get noticed until about 1998 (when COPA was passed, to be struck down as we have covered), and people really didn’t understand the idea of a “forever index” until social networking sites became popular around 2005.

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