In revealing the identity of a person posting comments on their site under the moniker “lawmiss”, the Cleveland Plain Dealer believed that the public’s right to know outweighed the importance of protecting the privacy of anonymous commentators. The “lawmiss” postings, it turned out, came from the e-mail address of a judge. -db
On one side are experts who believe the newspaper has violated a trust by exploring and revealing information about a critic. On the other are those, including Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg, who believe that information is too important not to see the light of day.
Until this week, “lawmiss” was known only as one of thousands who, often known only by nicknames, share views on news blogs and stories reported at cleveland.com.
But after investigating a comment directed at the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter, editors learned that lawmiss had the same e-mail address as Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. A closer look revealed that the user had offered opinions on three of Saffold’s cases, including the capital murder trial of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell.
When confronted with the newspaper’s findings Wednesday, the judge denied responsibility for the posts. Her daughter, Sydney Saffold, came forward later to accept responsibility for posting “quite a few, more than five” of more than 80 lawmiss comments.
Goldberg, who has written about the pros and cons of anonymous comments, said the issues raised by lawmiss’ comments outweigh any breach of trust that comes from exposing the poster.
Anonymous online comments are linked to the personal e-mail account of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold
Goldberg noted that comments made were not about “trifling” matters. The posts related directly to two death-penalty cases involving Saffold as judge — Sowell’s and the 2008 murder trial of former Cleveland firefighter Terrance Hough Jr. — as well as a recent vehicular homicide case.
“You can argue we should not have uncovered lawmiss’ identity,” Goldberg said in an interview, “and maybe we shouldn’t have. But once we did, I don’t know how you can pretend you don’t know that information. How can you put that genie back in the bottle?
“What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing, and we did not disclose it? These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization.”
Goldberg said she learned of Saffold’s connection to the cleveland.com posts Monday and, after consulting with other editors and the company’s lawyers, decided to reveal the judge’s ties.
The newspaper traced the identity of lawmiss after someone using that moniker left a comment about the mental state of a relative of reporter Jim Ewinger. The comment was removed for violating cleveland.com’s community rules, which do not allow personal attacks.
Users are required to register with a valid e-mail address before posting at cleveland.com. Upon learning of the Ewinger issue Monday, an online editor looked up lawmiss’ e-mail address, which like all others, is accessible through software used to post stories to the Web site.
Monitoring e-mail addresses is not a common practice, Goldberg said. But the information has been accessed before by online editors, who have banned people for violating the community rules or the site’s user agreement. Both were written by Advance Internet, a separate entity run by The Plain Dealer’s parent company.
How the newspaper obtained the information troubles Bob Steele, a journalism ethicist with the Poynter Institute and DePauw University. Steele questioned whether editors were justified in exploring lawmiss’ identity as there was “no immediate, profound danger to someone” and “no clear suspicion of judicial misconduct” at the time the investigation began.
“It does raise the question of the wisdom and fairness of the newspaper using the registration system of the Web site for reporting purposes,” Steele said in a telephone interview.
The newspaper’s decisions could have a chilling effect on conversation at cleveland.com, said Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online privacy rights group.
“I would think twice before participating in a message board where I had to give my e-mail address knowing that management could access it at any time,” Jeschke said. “It seems appropriate in this case, but … it’s hard not to imagine scenarios where it’s abused.”
John Hassell, vice president of content at Advance Internet, said company officials are taking steps to block reporters and editors from seeing e-mail addresses in the future.
“We take privacy very seriously and believe our users should feel confident that private information shared with us will not be made public,” said Hassell in a statement.
Other news organizations already hide such information from their editorial staff, said Steve Yelvington, a strategist for Morris Digital Works, the online division of Morris Communications. The company runs 13 daily newspapers in Florida, Georgia, Texas and other states.
“We are careful to firewall our business records from our journalists,” Yelvington said.
In The Plain Dealer’s case, “there’s a legitimate question about what your user community expects of you,” he added. “There’s potential for people to feel their trust has been violated.”
Those are concerns Goldberg said she shares. In a May 2009 column that appeared in the newspaper, she encouraged “freewheeling conversation” on blogs and stories at cleveland.com. She also wrote that she was not in favor of requiring posters to use their real names because she feared that, given the culture of the Internet, doing so would stifle online conversation.
Some people agree with Goldberg’s decision.
“Ordinarily, if you encourage anonymity, it should remain that way,” said Lewis Katz, a Case Western Reserve University law professor. “But if a person is abusing the process, and the person’s identity is available, I don’t see why [the newspaper] should not identify the person.”
The Saffold connection made the identity even more relevant to the public, Katz added.
“I think it is part of the people’s right to know,” he said, echoing Goldberg. “It raises the possibilities of improper comments by [Judge Saffold] or someone affiliated with her certainly using her e-mail address making these comments. And I think that reflects on the judge.”
Though he disagrees with the newspaper’s methods in discovering lawmiss’ identity, Steele, the journalism ethics expert, said he also understands the reason for reporting it.
“Should The Plain Dealer be shining light on this? I say yes,” Steele said. “I don’t think The Plain Dealer could walk away from the puzzle with so many pieces turned face up right now.”
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