A few days ago, the St. Charles Journal, a small newspaper in Missouri, published an article about Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who committed suicide after receiving hurtful messages from her MySpace crush. The story was particularly explosive because it turns out that the crush was a horrible hoax conjured up by adultsincluding the mother of one of Megan's former friends.
While many readers were impressed with the depth of the St. Charles Journal's reporting on the case, many others were dismayed by the newspaper's decision to grant anonymity to the adults behind the fictitious MySpace profile. Even though no criminal charges have been filed"We did not have a charge to fit it," the Sheriff's Department spokesman told the Journalmany readers felt that it was the newspaper's responsibility to name names. (Though the newspaper did not finger anyone, it did reveal enough information about the relationship between the Meiers and the other family that many enterprising readers were able to suss out the name of one of the probable hoaxsters: See this blog and the comments section in this blog.)
After reading about the controversy on Romenesko, Gelf caught up with Journal columnist Steve Pokin, who wrote the story, to ask him more about his reporting and the paper's decision not to out the adults involved.
Gelf Magazine: In a follow-up article, you write that you agree with the Journal's decision not to publish their names because you didn't want to identify the woman's daughter. Did you suspect that readers could do a little digging and figure out who they were from the article?
Steve Pokin: Let me think about that. My focus was on the story that appeared in my newspaper. I told that story the best way I could. As part of thatin consultation with my editorswe decided not to name the people behind it.
GM: Were there any other reasons you didn't name names besides your intent to protect the woman's daughter?
SP: That was the main reason.
GM: Were there any others?
SP: I don’t want to go into the other reasons
GM: How did you come across this story?
SP: Megan's mother has an aunt named Vicki Dunn. She called me after she saw a story I had written that appeared in October that also involved MySpace and involved a young woman who had received 500-1,000 unwanted messages. She said she had read that story and that she had a story about MySpace that I might be interested in.
GM: Were you expecting the national response you got to this story?
SP: I was not. It has been an incredible response from readers of the paper, from readers of the website, and from other media outlets. I have been a reporter for about 30 years and have never gotten anything like this.
GM: Have you gotten a lot of emails about this? Do most people agree with the paper's decision not to publish names?
SP: Part of the response to the story is that the paper has been questioned about its decision not to name the family.
GM: Did you expect other media outlets to pick up on the article and reveal the names of the adults behind the fictitious MySpace account? As you said, you were focused on how the article would appear in your newspaper, but you had to imagine there would be follow-up, right?
SP: I've already answered that.
GM: What do you think of this statement, via the comments section on the blog Jezebel:
Every day newspaper journalism as we know it gets one step closer to death, as readers turn to blogs and TV and other media for information. This wimp of an editor, who doesn't have the guts to name the wrongdoers involved, has just hastened our eventual demise by at least another week or two.
SP: I would disagree with that. I think I'll leave it at that.