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What I am losing sleep over: #2 Privacy, fairness

So what am I tossing and turning about at night? This week, I'm covering five things that I'm losing sleep over.

Yesterday, I confessed math scares the crap out of me.

 

Here's No. 2: Privacy, fairness and accuracy in crime, tragedy stories, reader comments

 

If a kid dies in a car crash and you see her picture on Facebook, can you grab it and republish it? Can you publish her friends' comments of grief?

 

If a 17-year-old steals a candy bar, should that blurb exist on your website in perpetuity?

 

If you cover the opening of a restaurant, is it OK to let people post comments bashing the restaurant?

 

It's issues like these that have me staring blankly at infomercials into the wee hours of the morning.

 

There are no easy answers ... In fact, most of us can't even agree on the questions.

 

To me, there are two levels to consider when debating these issues.

 

The first is a question of legality. What is it legal for you to do? Questions of copyright tend to be pretty clear, especially in use of photos. "Borrowing" from social media is a lot more gray.

 

The second -- and  harder question -- is whether or not it's fair. Just because it's legal, doesn't make it right. That answer seems to be constantly shifting.  And it's tough to sort through my own bias and quiet my conscience.

 

I don't feel so bad for the guy who calls me crying that he can't get a job because of a three-year-old story online about his embezzlement conviction. I do feel bad for the new college grad who's got a DUI from high school haunting him. But I can't start hiding stories for people I think are nice.

 

And I can't decide it's OK to take a photo off Facebook of a kid who's accused of murder but not one who died in a car crash. I can't un-identify a crash victim who says she fake called in sick and ID'ing her will get her fired.

 

How do I know if the person who says the new restaurant is terrible is a legit patron or someone from a competing place across the street?

 

I know I'm asking a lot of questions and providing very few answers.

 

That's why this keeps me up at night. The conflict between my journalism need to tell and my personal ethics weighs on me.

 

But what is black and white is making darn sure the information is correct. Even before you start debating snagging that picture off social media, you need to make sure you've got the right person.

 

Having a name, hometown and general age match up isn't enough. And we as editors need to challenge content that just has no verification beyond what someone Googled. We also need to make sure we're not just repeating someone else's poorly sourced material.

 

Use your skeptical editing skills: How do we know what we think know is true? Once you know it's accurate, then you can start stressing over the fairness.

 

And this is why I'm not worried about spelling out state names in stories ...

 

Coming tomorrow: Plagiarism and fabrication

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