Paper Police

Apparently the Chronicle is now turning to readers to provide advice on editorial policy. This, of course, paves the way to some truly choice insight; be sure to read the comment thread below the entry I linked to with care, so that you can marvel at the state of decline that the English language has reached.

Like other newspapers, the Chronicle is facing some major changes if it wants to survive. A lot of the editorial, news, and features staff have blogs now to keep up with the tide of information which is suddenly, readily available. The limitations of a paper paper are becoming apparent as today’s breaking news becomes tomorrow’s old hat, and, as a result, the paper is struggling to set new boundaries. Responsibilities and journalistic ethics are changing…or are they?

As the editor points out in this blog entry, the Internet has really changed the way we view information, especially information about people. Try Googling yourself: when I Google my first and last names, in amongst the garbage I can find an account on a social networking site, an acknowledgment on a wedding registry, and a book review. You can even find a bona fide picture of me. Of course, I also find a number of entries related to a sports figure who also has my name. My full name returns only two results, both referring to me. Using just my first and last names, it would be difficult to find that much information about me…and I like it that way. For people who are less cautious, though, the Internet has certainly put a whole new spin onto employment references, and would make some plots of books and films seem rather implausible in the modern world. There’s a reason I don’t throw my name around lightly. I much prefer being an international women of mystery.

So what happens when you agree to let the newspaper use your image, and then get upset because it shows up in search results for your name? This is what the editor is agonizing over in this article. Should a newspaper remove your image or name from the online edition if you object to it? I say no, except in rare circumstances which can be evaluated on an individual basis by the paper’s staff.

Let us say that I am walking down the street on a rainy day wearing some festive rain boots, and a reporter stops me and asks if I am willing to be interviewed and quoted in the Chronicle in an article about the return of the rain. I agree, talk to the reporter, and allow my photograph to be taken. I sign a release indicating my consent. The next day, I see my picture in the paper, captioned “San Francisco Resident Starshine Defenestrate Jones is enjoying the return of wet weather.” There’s not too much objectionable about that, now is there? I agreed to be interviewed, my name is spelled right, and I am not misrepresented.

If, on the other hand, the photograph is captioned “A San Francisco welfare mother waits in line at Social Services,” I would object, because although the picture was used with my consent, I would have been grossly misrepresented. I would expect the newspaper to print a retraction in the print edition, if the image had made it to print, and I would expect the caption to be adjusted in the online edition. Yes, someone using a cache might see the erroneous caption, and that is a bummer. But that’s life. It does seem reasonable, though, to ask the newspaper to correct an error.

In a third instance, where the paper uses the image without my consent, it is a bit of a slippery slope. If you are out in public, you run the chance that you will be photographed. If an image of me appeared in the day in pictures, or as part of an article, I don’t think I would object unless the accompanying text was inaccurate. A caption like “Festive rain boots in San Francisco” is pretty vague and unobjectionable, and the most likely caption, because that’s all the paper knows about me. If the caption said “an eager rain lover waits in line at the Apple store,” I might request a change because the caption would not be accurate, and I would hate to think of anyone recognizing me and thinking that I would purchase an Apple product. However, in general, the paper is cautious about images like that, choosing to err on the side of caution and minimize identifiers. I might be riled because the paper used my image, but I don’t have much of a leg to stand on, seeing as how my rain boots and I were in a public space.

Of course, the question in the article is not about erroneous content, its about whether accurate content can/should be removed/altered at the request of the individual concerned. Personally, I think that the answer to this question is no, unless the presence of the content constitutes a threat to the life and well being of the person depicted, or it was published without that individual’s consent and was not a matter of public record. If your image is published in the paper with your name underneath it, the implication is that either you agreed to the publication, or you are such a public figure that you can be readily identified from your image. Life’s a bitch. If your image is published without your name, but with a vague caption, that’s because you were out in public and doing something that a reporter thought was newsworthy. If you don’t like the idea of that sort of thing, don’t go out in public, or be boring when you do.

If your name appears in print attached to factual information, it suggests that the information is in the public record, or you disclosed it. Ethically, reporters need to identify themselves and secure permission. The Chronicle’s reporters are not running around conducting unauthorized interviews and publishing them. It sounds like a lot of the instances illustrated in the article are cases of regret, and the lesson here is not that newspapers should censor themselves, but that people need to think carefully before consenting to publication of their images or words. If someone asks you for an interview, or for permission to use your words, think about the impact that the interview might have if someone was searching for you on the Internet. Do you really want a potential Craiglist date knowing that you oppose seal clubbing? You have the right to refuse, and no reputable paper will use your name without your consent…unless, as I say, it is a matter of public record.

I think that the Chronicle should have a firmly stated editorial policy on this issue, because I will not think of them as a reliable newspaper of record if readers are allowed to manipulate factual content. I value my privacy greatly, which is why I do not engage in private or compromising acts in public. It is not the Chronicle’s responsibility to clean up my messes, nor should it be. I feel like most of the examples cited had to do with people who were up to no good and feeling guilty about it. Tough. If I choose, for example, to solicit a prostitute in the Tenderloin and am photographed in the process, I don’t see how I can object to that photograph appearing in print. I was in public. I was doing something interesting. Of course the newspaper is going to publish it…and given the age we live in, so are a dozen other people who happened to be there with cameras and phones.

If you’re doing something naughty, it’s up to you to do it in a way that will not attract attention.