Nov 182009
 November 18, 2009  Featured News, Online

An online editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has generated a lot of criticism for snitching about vulgar online comments to the commenter’s employer.

Jacqui Cheng writes on Ars Technica:

Internet commenters aren’t generally known for their eloquence and impeccable manners. Still, people’s tasteless little one-offs are relatively harmless most of the time—until the comment police happen across your note and contact your employer. That’s what happened to one unlucky commenter posting to the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (of all places), where a poorly chosen vulgarity eventually led to the loss of his job.

It seems that when  a commenter used a vulgarity that moderators deleted, the commenter posted the vulgarity again.  Instead of just deleting the comment, the Social Media Editor, Kurt Greenbaum, looked up the IP used by the poster, found it was a local school, and then contacted the school to tell them about the comment.   He then forwarded the moderation email showing the time stamp and IP to them.  The school tracked down the poster, an employee, who reportedly then resigned.   How do we know all this?  Greenbaum volunteered all this information in a blog post.

Amazingly, Greenbaum seemingly sees nothing questionable about his actions. In response to one of the numerous comments in response to his revelations, he writes:

I didn’t track down the guy. His place of work just showed up in the email alert because their servers were correctly configured.

Defend the guy who posted the vulgarity all you want. I’m not regulating someone’s thought. He can think whatever he wants. I’m moderating our boards. Follow our guidelines and this won’t be a problem for any of you.

Remember, I said it was a school, right? It could have been a student. I didn’t know who it was. I just thought the school might like to know about it. I sleep fine at night.

And in response to another commenter, he writes:

I didn’t give out any private information. I didn’t have any to give and I wouldn’t have if I did. As you pointed out, that would be a violation of our policy.

In her piece, Cheng comments:

Then there’s the question of whether pulling this move and then telling everyone about it was really worth throwing the paper’s integrity into question—while other newspapers are fighting tooth and nail to protect the identity of their anonymous commenters, the Post-Dispatch has proven that it will reveal that info with little prodding.

“Little prodding?” No prodding at all. The paper’s employee took it on himself to go “snitch” to the school. And there’s nothing in their TOS that says that they will reach out to contact your employer if you violate their acceptable use policies. Nor does anything in their privacy policy seemingly permit such conduct.

This site e-mailed the newspaper for a reaction to their editor’s actions, but by the time of this publication, has not received any response.

Wendy Davis of MediaPost also discusses this incident. Davis writes, in part:

Greenbaum might have reacted impulsively, but it’s still troubling that a journalist with 27 years of experience didn’t question whether it was wise to out one of the paper’s readers — a decision that certainly seems to violate the paper’s own policies.

Of course, Greenbaum denies that he revealed any private information about the poster. But how can a newspaper possibly justify going beyond deleting inappropriate comments or evening banning a user or IP to reaching out to “report” a comment and providing information that could be used to ID a commenter just because it’s vulgar or inappropriate?

In a follow-up blog entry, Greenbaum tries to explain himself and talk about what he’s learned. Nowhere, however, does he seem to recognize that newspapers need to protect the privacy of commenters — even those who use foul language or say things we do not like. Having newspapers become “snitches” is simply bad journalism, in this blogger’s opinion.

What do you think?

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