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November 16, 2007

Who Deserves Anonymity?

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 adults—including 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 Journal—many 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 that—in consultation with my editors—we 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.

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- Media
- posted on Nov 16, 07

I have no problem with the paper not naming the parents in their story. Most newspapers do not publish the names of suspects until they are charged.

I do find Steve Pokin a bit deensive though. Perhaps that't to be expected after getting all the flak he and his appear to have received.

And he never did answer the question regarding if he thought bloggers and others would find out the names of the parents in question. My guess is no.

- Media
- posted on Nov 16, 07

"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."

Why not?

What other reasons?

If there are good reasons for withholding information, the paper should specify what they are and allow its readership to judge for themselves whether the reasons are acceptable to them — or whether the readership needs to reply in whatever manner it can (letters, blog posts, subscription cancellations).

This increasing murkiness and attitude of "we know better than you" reflects poorly on the paper and does not serve the public good.

- Media
- posted on Nov 17, 07
Todd Morman

You've got to be kidding. The question is simple: "Did you suspect that readers could do a little digging and figure out who they were from the article?"

The answer is disgustingly sleazy: "Let me think about that." Puh-lease. Is there anybody in the world who's read this story who *doesn't* think that the journalist and his editors discussed the high likelihood that readers would be able to easily finger the family in question? Steve's hilariously vague and insulting answer to your simple question leaves no doubt on that point.

- Media
- posted on Nov 18, 07

Please, people, get a life. There was no way they could publish the names, given the risk of being the target of a lawsuit by the family due to the consequences. It is totally irrelevant what people think of them, any vigilantism against them WOULD be illegal. And the paper likely be held responsible, had they published the names. If people do some digging, that's their own risk, but the newspaper can not be held liable in such a case.

- Media
- posted on Nov 19, 07

The people who want names are the same people who slow down to see if someone died in a car accidents. They're scum, and I totally respect the writers decisions.

- Media
- posted on Nov 21, 07

You know... of course there's no reason to blame a news source for refusing to release a name. That's their prerogative.

At the same time, I'm quite happy that bloggers have released Lori Drew's name. If she ends up getting killed by some overzealous vigilante, I will smile the quiet smile of poetic justice.

Posing as a guy, gaining the confidence of, then betraying a young girl is beyond scumbag behavior. Lori Drew is not a human being.

- Media
- posted on Nov 21, 07

G.E., I totally disagree. This is about accountability. Lori Drew hid behind the "anonymity" of the internet. She also continued to believe nothing she did was wrong. This is the behaviour of a psychopath. Personally, I'd like to know if a psychopath is living in my neighbourhood, as I would want to avoid him/her.

Honourable people do not conduct their lives in a manner which they expect anonymity. I also think that had there been any remorse by the Drews, the reaction may have been different. Public shunning is very appropriate in this case. The only thing people like this understand is consequences to their pocketbooks.

- Media
- posted on Nov 25, 07

Lori Drew is clearly a psychopath.

But more disturbing than that are the actions of authorities: If it had been an adult MALE that "carried on" in a sexually explicit way with a 13 year old girl (even if it WERE for the purposes of revenge for his teen daughter) he'd be locked up as a pedophile.

Second, there are al-READY laws on the books that cover this type of harassment. For chrissake: just implement them!

What is particularly chilling to me, is that Lori Drew knew that the victim was known to be suicidal in the past. That means that her statement to her that the "world would be better off without you" or whatever it was... is even MORE chilling: it means she was TRYING to steer this girl to suicide. It means she had a desire to push it in that direction, and did so.

Reminds me of Charles Manson. He never "technically" put his own hands upon his victims either, but he "made it happen" by manipulating people, I mean that's the premise upon which he was convicted: that he had INCITED it.

Same thing here. Lori Drew incited this suicide and should be just as responsible as Manson was when he incited those murders---and she should also be treated just like any other adult who engages in online relationships of a sexual nature with under-aged children.

- Media
- posted on Dec 02, 07
Danny Vice

The Hypocritical Media Cover-up

The naming of Lori Drew has sparked quite a debate indeed. Some major news outlets have chosen to name the perpetrator(s) behind this story such as the New York Times. Some have chosen not to. The mainstream media however has concluded that the blogging community should shoulder the responsibility of first naming the perpetrator behind this story.

The first question I have in this debate is simple. What is new here? Since before the French Revolution, the media has been used to 'out' individuals who's actions seem to bear public relevancy in some way. Even now, most media outlets are airing stories along with the names of the individuals who inspire them.

Although Lori Drew has not yet been charged in the case of Megan Meier, the media has never required formal charges to be made before running a story. In the case of some journalist like Dan Rather, some media outlets run with stories before even confirming that they're true.

In this particular case, media outlets that have chosen to withhold Lori Drew's identity have done so in consideration of other Drew family members.

I'm wondering if by doing this, the media plans to always withhold the names of interesting persons who outrage the community, if those persons have children. This would certainly be quite a ground-breaking event.

The media would have to reverse dozens of stories it is now airing, where the subject in the story has not yet been charged with a crime.

Right at this moment, there is a story of a cop who is under investigation in the strange death of one wife and the disappearance of another. We won't name this cop, because he hasn't been formally charged in the case. Does that not sound rather hypocritical? The cop in the story has a family, yet the media huddles outside his home relentlessly.

I could go back and list thousands of stories where the media wasted no time in delivering the names and occupations of individuals that were later exonerated of any wrong-doing. The vice is aware of no instance where the same media outlet apologized to the family who was wrongly accused.

Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry", a great song from the 80's, certainly nails it on the head rather well I think. The hypocrisy here is so well documented over decades of story telling, that simply opening tomorrow's newspaper easily confirms the silliness of it.

Lori Drew is a primary subject of the story, she is not a rape victim, and is not a minor. Identifying her breaks no new ground, nor does it deviate from what news outlets do on a daily basis.

I also remind readers that her name and her role in the Megan Meier tragedy were documented as public record. A public record that Lori filed on her own accord. This is a critically important fact in this case.

News outlets, bloggers and the general public were handed Lori's name and Lori's own self admissions when she herself filed that police report and sought to elevate the severity of the situation that had developed between her and the Meier family.

Had Lori Drew simply acknowledged what she did was wrong, and apologized - the police report that identified her may have never been filed, and the entire situation may have well been kept at the lowest profile.

Will we see the media write about this? Not likely, it has new stories and new names to broadcast, that can't wait.

- Media
- posted on Dec 08, 07

I think it's incredilby ironic that a journalist would decide to be so defensive and vague when being interviewed.

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