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The Minnesota Daily tried to unring a bell

After a foreign student regrets allowing his full name to be used in a story criticizing his home government, the University of Minnesota’s campus paper does its best to excise the information after the fact.
By David Brauer

Fans of journalism ethics should mosey over to the Minnesota Daily, where editor in chief Holly Miller noted the “rare circumstance” where her publication removed accurate information that had already appeared online.

The short version: The Daily’s Katherine Lymn wrote a July 28 article on a Tunisian student visiting the U. Amid other reflections, the student was critical of his home government, which is not one of the world’s most tolerant. According to Miller, the student was the only one of several North African visitors who agreed to let his first and last names be used.

After the piece ran, the U.S. State Department and U officials called, noting that the student feared repercussions and might be in more trouble than he initially realized. He wanted the online version removed.

Miller declined — the student’s photo is still above the story, big-as-life — but she did remove his last name.

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Did she make an insensitive call? I don’t think so. Once a story goes live, search engines keep previous versions visible; you can’t fully unring that bell. Of course, by that reasoning, you could say taking out the last name is merely feel-good, too.

Conversely, if you believe removing the last name  makes identification that much harder, why not go all the way?

Miller says she did not want to take down a factual article — “one that we’d spent a lot of time and care to make happen. For us, we found [removing the last name] as a compromise” that would at least retard easy searching.

Realistically, there’s still enough information in the piece for government nasties to make an identification. Still, the editor insists the Daily did not recklessly rush the original story into publication. Lymn and supervisors discussed how hard it was to get students to give their full IDs, tweaking the story from being about many students to the one willing to disclose.

Shouldn’t the refusals have raised a red flag on any first/last name revelation, regardless of what the subject allowed? Miller says the Daily took the extra step of contacting program administrators (who had originally urged the Daily to profile the students), and they signed off on his initial wishes.

“The students came from lots of countries, with lots of policies,” Miller says of the other turn-downs. “We kind of went through the different options.”

Miller says the State Department later told her that students received media training, though how much was unclear. In her editor’s note, she acknowledged that the source “may not have understood the American media process” and how widely the story would be distributed.

Despite insisting that extra steps were taken, Miller concluded, “I challenge both our reporters and our interviewees to have more in-depth conversations about these issues early on in the interviewing process. … The more conversation about a source’s concerns prior to publication, the more that can be done to avoid the angst and frustration that comes in dealing with these situations after publication.”