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Google, Privacy and Journalism

Andrea has an interesting post about a sensational and tragic news story that was splashed across the front page of both local rags today. The piece involves a father facing criminal charges for allowing his 3-year-old daughter to drink water containing the street drug GHB.

Andrea posits that the Vancouver Sun staff have intentionally included identifying details that would enable anyone to identify this man using Google:

he paper describes his house colour, size, lot, items in the front yard, and the general neighbourhood. The Sun article provides details about the man’s car, including windshield stickers, and an item in the backseat. Moreover, the report notes that the man has a website resume — then proceeds to describe details of his work history, career timeline, hobbies, and other experiences.

With details from the newspaper story, I was able to use Google to pull up an extremely relevant web resume within five to 10 seconds. I won’t identify the man or his website address, because it would be unethical to do so.

Now, I didn’t have quite as easy a time locating him as Andrea did, but I got it done. She makes a strong case for the Sun’s intentions. After all, those details about the man are hardly crucial to the narrative. It would be satisfactory, to have written “the Vancouver man had been employed as an audio technician in the film industry for the past decade”. Pointing out that his resume is online doesn’t help, either.

How is the Vancouver Sun serving the public interest by revealing these details? If there is no prevailing public interest (which clearly there isn’t), shouldn’t a journalist respect the police’s decision not to reveal the identity of a suspect?

9 Responses to “Google, Privacy and Journalism”

  1. Ross Thomas

    Yes, they absolutely should respect the police’s decision. In fact, they should probably keep identifying details at a minimum even if the cops do release a name, etc. In this case the man hasn’t even been convicted yet, which makes it particularly disgusting.

    That said, newspapers can serve a useful extra-judicial function. I recall specifically a case in England where a young black guy named Stephen Lawrence was murdered (beaten to death) by a gang of thugs. The police couldn’t, or didn’t want to, prosecute, despite there being compelling evidence pointing to a certain group of individuals. Eventually, when it was clear the cops were going to do nothing about it, the Daily Mail, a UK national newspaper, ran on the front page pictures of the five people thought to have carried out the murder along with their names, daring them to sue if they were not really guilty of the crime. As far as I know none did.

    It was extremely controversial but, in my opinion, justified. As the Mail themselves said:

    “It is no light matter when a national newspaper condemns as murderers five men who have never been convicted in court. But when the judicial system has failed so lamentably to deal with the killers of Stephen Lawrence, extraordinary measures are demanded.”

    I agree. I consider it proactive journalism in the public good. But I also feel this kind of thing should be done only in extraordinary cases, like that of Stephen Lawrence.

    (It’s a shame that no newspaper in Canada would ever dare print such a thing, because none have the circulation of the British dailes and thus the funds to fight five lawsuits, deliberately provoked, against people falsely charged, by the newspaper, of murder. The judgement would be enormous. But the woeful state of the Canadian media is another topic entirely…)

  2. Travis

    I noticed that also when reading it — that it was far more detailed than the usual article, and that the information basically identified him: how many book technicians who are also base guitarists are there in Vancouver. At the very least, you’ve now made several people who might match the description extremely uncomfortable.

    Also odd was the inclusion of far too many details about how to make GHB: “The key ingredient is gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL, which is a solvent found in paint strippers, floor cleaning products, nail polish, super glue removers and drain openers. The GBL is mixed with sodium hydroxide or lye, which can be purchased at drug and hardware stores.” It did everything but give the quantity, and perhaps price.

    I find it disconcerting to be wishing for LESS information from a news article for once, but in this case…

  3. Andrea

    I think the description of the guy’s house and car will seal the deal for anyone who wasn’t quite sure about the guy’s identity. In addition to the police department’s decision about keeping the identity private, the court apparently ordered a publication ban on the man’s identity. So I think the Sun acted in bad faith, regardless of my own feelings about people who put drugs within the environment of their children. (The CBC has since reported that GHB is illegal to sell, not possess, interestingly enough.)

    The Sun’s editor actually wrote back to me yesterday (impressive) and said that they included the details because this is a matter of public issue and the man in the story has more to worry about than whether the paper reveals his occupation — as if all the Sun did was note the guy was a boom operator. If they wanted to protect the public, they would have talked about the dangers of children and all drugs — legal or not — especially during the holiday party season.

    As for the details on how to make GHB, I thought that was a bit odd. Stories on alcohol don’t include notes on how to ferment potatoes. However, just searching for “how to make GHB” turned up a much more detailed recipe. At least The Sun didn’t perform a “Google outing” on the recipe.

  4. Derek

    I too found the article odd. A few details appeared, then more, and the paragraph went on and on, going so far as to note what kinds of stickers were on the man’s SUV and so on. It seemed to me like sour grapes: “Publication ban? Well, screw you, we’ll see how far we can take this!”

    A few years ago I published a short and innocuous article in the Sun, and received a few strange pieces of e-mail and even postal mail from obviously disturbed people as a result. I can only imagine what this guy will end up with because the Sun went further than necessary in fleshing out his personal details.

    The story remains puzzling, because there are plenty of nasty (and sometimes even fatal) accidents with toddlers that could be prevented if parents were paying more attention. Most of them involve perfectly legal things, from water buckets and bathtubs to bleach and (especially) staircases, but many are also more severe: why is this man singled out for charges, I wonder? The story (and police) don’t go intro much detail there. (I’ve avoided any accidents that drastic in my house, but sometimes only through luck rather than sufficient vigilance, I’m sad to say.)

    It would have been useful if the reporter had spent more effort figuring out what particularly prompted police to think about pressing charges in this case, rather than searching the Web to figure out how to name the guy without naming him.

  5. Arwen

    I find the focus on “date-rape drug” in the media rather interesting, since when I was in university I knew a number of people who did the drug recreationally, specifically to help around exam time. I was told by users that the ‘high’ was as good as speed or caffeine for keeping you up, but made you very calm: good for studying without wigging out. The Vancouver Sun article doesn’t belabour the date-rape, but many other articles did: making me wonder if the exposure wasn’t anti-rape rather than child-protection vigilante-ism.

  6. Andrea

    It looks like the keeper of the online resume has found a way to keep the site from showing up in Google searches. However, the file is still up.

    I think Arwen’s right about the “child-protection vigilante-ism”. However, the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists says that journalists must take care to separate advocacy from news reporting. And I fail to see how exposing the guy’s identity protects kids, especially when both the police and the court asked for a publication ban to protect the man’s kids. Now any wing-nut can go picket the guy’s house, smash his windows, call the house, send email, taunt the kids, etc.

  7. heather

    Frankly, I could care less about the man’s privacy. He was incredibly stupid and reckless, and from what I can tell, he was either cruising to try to drug somebody (heinous) or taking it himself for the buzz (stupid). But there’s the kid to think about, and siblings he/she might have…they don’t need to be dragged into this more than they already are.

  8. Andrea

    I agree that the guy was reckless. But the police recommended to the court that his identity be kept secret for the sake of his children. And then the court ordered that the identity be kept secret to protect his children. The Sun’s Google outing shows disregard for police recommendations and a court order, especially in light of the fact that the guy had not even been charged (let alone found guilty) at press time. (Furthermore, GHB is not illegal to possess. If the guy’s daughter had ingested Dran-O, would the Sun have done this?)

  9. Phil

    Whatever can be done to ruin the respect of an innocent should be utilized by the media to its utmost. If you dojn’t want to be made example of, do what the f* we tell you.

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