Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Minimizing harm

One of the tenets we try to live by at the Post Register is to “minimize harm.”
Note that the objective isn’t to “do no harm.” We recognize that with every edition we are likely causing someone harm – the drunken driver whose name we publish, the crooked politician whose escapades are laid bare, etc. 

This is not a straightforward process. Deciding when a story goes over the line is a matter of great debate in our newsroom on many days. Sometimes our decisions aren’t unanimous. This is how good newsrooms populated by thoughtful and passionate people should function.

We were particularly tested this week with a unique and awkward circumstance the likes of which I don’t recall in more than three decades of being a journalist.

On Tuesday we published what appeared to be an innocuous story featuring the owner of a local game store who was succeeding despite these turbulent economic times. He readily agreed to an interview and we featured him and his business on our front page.
As soon as the story appeared, however, we were notified by a number of people that the business owner is a known sex offender who was convicted of lewd conduct with a child under 16 in 2004. We hadn’t known. If we had, we would not have done the story. Truthfully, we probably wouldn’t have done a story about the fact that a convicted sex offender owned a business that catered to young people, either.
Now, however, we faced a real quandary. We’ve told a story that clearly lacked important background information. The business owner had the opportunity to suggest that maybe we should find someone else to do a story on – surely he had to anticipate that his record would come out.
You might rightly ask why we didn’t conduct a more thorough background check on the man. The truth is, we don’t routinely check on the background of everyone we write about unless there is a compelling reason to do so. None of us thought to do so in this case.
Once we were notified of the man’s background we learned that neighbors of the man’s business had posted fliers in the area warning that a sex offender owned the business. The YMCA, only a block from the business, increased staffing for its child care center.
Had the man been working on the manufacturing line at a widget company, that would be one thing. We also know that some readers perceive – wrongly – that when we publish a story about a business that we are providing our tacit endorsement.
All that considered, and since the man was running a business that caters to young people, I felt we had no choice but to do a follow-up story – we couldn’t let the original story stand on its own. I wish there had been another way, but I remain convinced there wasn’t.
So we ran the follow-up the next day, detailing the man’s conviction and explaining that he had followed all the rules when establishing his business. Clearly, this man has been harmed by our report, though it’s completely accurate.
Judging by the handful of angry calls and emails we’ve received about the follow-up story, more than a few of our readers think we made a bad decision. I respect and understand that perspective.
Naturally, we take a few lessons from this, including the inclination to Google the names of more people who will be featured in our stories. Beyond that, it’s just the latest reminder that what we do affects the lives of a lot of people. But we already knew that.

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