Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Responding to Comments Re Student's Felony Arrest

I tend not to typically jump into the comment fray, but since a few people have asked, I've decided to elaborate a bit on why we decided to run the blurb - really just linking to a news article and some comments - on the student who was arrested and is facing felony assault charges.
What benefit do you folks get from publishing something like this about a fellow student?
No benefit at all - just the same as any other article that we (and I mean the UVA Law Blog editors, not just the corny "editorial we" that I usually use) decide to publish (I assure you despite the recent appearance of adds on this site none of the editors make any money from it). As to why we decided to publish it, that's simple: It's related to UVA Law and it's news-worthy; and that's what this blog does. All and all we feel we've done a pretty good job of publishing important news and a pretty good job of maintaining a strong sense of journalistic integrity as well.
I realize the Daily Progress and maybe some other sources came out with this first, but this blog is just making this thing last longer and is probably the main reason it showed up on ATL.
First, I am unclear as to how our coverage made the incident "last longer". This incident will be around and be talked about for a while, whether it gets covered by UVA Law Blog or not. This way, at least, there's a forum for discussion, which I can see you and many others have taken advantage of.

Second, I personally doubt that this blog is the "main reason" why this story made it on to Above the Law (ATL). In fact, the ATL "story" - while seemingly derivative of our coverage (which itself just focused on a very short news article, so who cares . . . ) - did not originally mention UVA Law Blog at all; and ATL usually does give this site credit credit for "tipping" them to one thing or another (FYI: We don't send things to ATL, someone else does, or they pick it up on their own). Later ATL did add an update saying to go to UVA Law Blog for "further discussion," although I am not sure if there is anything further to add at this point.

Third, as a (somewhat long) aside, I will say that I am not sure that ATL exercised the best judgment in using the student's name in their post, although I am not in their shoes and I admit I am not sure what I would do if I were. But this does provide us a quick opportunity to sketch what has evolved into an informal policy here on these types of situations.

The reason we didn't use the students name is this: there is a great danger that because of the way search algorithms work this student's career prospects and personal reputation could be disproportionately damaged as a result of her arrest (under what some would argue are questionable circumstances). Now, obviously, this has already been reported in the local media and that, in theory, makes it fair game. But we were not comfortable putting the name of the person in our post because we knew that it would come up whenever someone ran a search [person's name] + UVA Law, which prospective employers are very likely to do in the next few weeks.

That said, however, we did link to several articles that had the person's name in it, so it of course was not a secret. In other words, we did what ATL does for summer associates who do something embarassing at their firms (not that we think the two are at all alike): post the story and enough information to make it easy for someone to uncover who it is, but not the actual name itself, because of the high probability of this making the top of a google-hit list.

An interesting question would be why does ATL keep the identity of summer associates who goof up a secret, but broadcast the name of this person for all to see? In the case of the summer associate screw up, ATL often gives people more than enough information to find out who the offending party is, but simply won't publish it as a post because, I suspect, they are concerned about the search engine consequences for the sake of the person in question.

How different is this situation?

Well, in this case the name had already been reported in a local news outlet, and so some people might think it's "fair game" after that. but by putting it on a blog that is read by such a large portion of the legal community, ATL severely maligned this young woman's career prospects before she has had her day in court: every time that BigFim LLP or BigGov'tAgency googles her name, they will see the not-flattering ATL story (and the obscene comments that go with it.) Not to mention the fact that many of these same people read ATL on an almost daily basis anyway, it's safe to say that her the ATL story has gone a long way to get this students' name out there - in a not great way. As I said, I have mixed feelings about this and can see both sides of the coin, at least from their perspective as a "legal tabloid". If it's something that you feel strongly about one way or the other in this particular case or in general, I guess you should talk to them.

In any event, this is not the case not at UVA Law Blog: we are not a "legal tabloid" and are here, first and foremost, to serve the UVA community by providing a blog that attempts to chronicle significant goings-on related to school in some way or another (and, yes, occasionally opine on such goings-on, and even sometimes try to "make a difference" - we never claimed to be purely objective!). Thus, our goals are different, and, as the situation stands now, I and the rest of the editors will continue to delete the comments name the student, until either the case is resolved or the person's name becomes ubiqutious common knowledge (which, to be fair, may have happened as a result of the ATL article; recall how we started using Professor Leslie's name only after the CavDaily and Law Weekly ran stories on the matter - I guess we'll have to see).

I realize that someone is jumping up and down at this point, thinking that "BUT WAIT ! What is the point if you make it so easy for someone to find out who the person is, and post it on their own site." The point is this: if you want to be the one who starts what is essentially a google-bomb for this person, who has yet to be convicted of a crime, and whose arrest may have been under dubious circumstances (fact: we don't know what exactly transpired), then no one will stop you - just copy the information from a local news report. But we will not do that.

We find our way (Yes story, yes links, no name in the body of the post) to be a fair compromise. We recognize, however, that it is certainly a topic about which reasonable people could disagree, and many would say that anything that has already been reported by a news outlet - albeit a very local one - is fair game. Others would say that we should never report anything like this ever. Can't please everybody all the time.
I think this takes some of the starch out of the collegiality schtick that we enjoy talking about.
I think that collegiality includes open, respectful discussion. I don't believe that making the UVA Law community aware of this is not "collegial". Indeed, some people sympathetic to this student's plight have thanked us for bringing this to their attention.
I think we would really make ourselves all look better if we refrained from publishing our personal errors.
It comes back to whether you think a student being arrested in circumstances that are, to say the least, highly unusual and some would argue suspect is something that you think is newsworthy and important for a site like UVA Law Blog to cover. Before running the story I talked it over with a number of people, including both editors on the blog and editors of the Virginia Law Weekly. We agreed that it was.

TLDR Version: We are generally very conservative about what we choose to publish, beleive it or not. But this met our minimum standards of being newsworthy, and we took as much precaution as was reasonable/possible to prevent the perculation of this student's name, to search engines and otherwise, and still run the story.

And yes, we are all sorry about the typos.