More on The Saffold Affair

There have been a few developments since my last post on the affair involving Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the custody of online community registration information.

As outlined in my previous post about this, The Plain Dealer used registration information from its message boards to link the judge to anonymous statements about some of her cases. They confronted the judge with their findings and published a story about it.

The biggest development is that Judge Saffold has sued the Plain Dealer for $50 million. The suit (available as a PDF file) alleges that the defendants, “allowed Plain Dealer reporters access to confidential private information solely in possession of” and its parent company, Advance Internet. The suit goes on to say that the judge and her daughter (who admitted posting some of the messages in question) “reasonably expected, and did, in fact expect, Defendants to maintain the confidentiality and privacy of their personally identifiable information…”

Meantime, Advance Internet has blocked editorial staff from accessing user registration information. The Plain Dealer’s reader representative, Ted Diadiun, detailed the affair — and Advance Internet’s response — in a column a few days ago. Diadiun’s column makes clear that he’s not too happy that reporters will no longer have access to this information.

Amid these latest developments, a wider debate spurred by this story continues.

Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald argues that anonymous online commentary is harmful and should be ended altogether. “Make them leave their names,” Pitts writes. “Stop giving people a way to throw rocks and hide their hands. Any dropoff in the quantity of message board postings will surely be made up in the quality thereof.”

Pitts has a point. The problem is in the execution.

Show me a newspaper message board that demands posters use real names and I’ll show you a slew of messages from the likes of “Bud Weiser,” “Al Fresco,” and “Anita Mann.”

Shawn Moynihan, in a column for Editor & Publisher, says that once an account is used to violate a community’s terms and conditions (as the account in this case was arguably doing), “you open yourself to scrutiny, especially if you’re making insidious comments on such serious matters as death-penalty cases. And if a newspaper learns in the process that an anonymous poster who’s doing so may or may not be a local judge, then that paper has an inarguable responsibility to its readership to investigate, and — in this case — report its findings.

I agree. But I think Mr. Moynihan misses the point.

As I argued in my last post on this: Reporters can’t be faulted for using information at their disposal pursue a story of interest to their readers. The problem is that reporters had access to the information in the first place. The traditional (and vital) wall between the business and editorial sides of the paper has to work both ways in order to be meaningful. The business side of the operation should have kept this information from the editorial side.

Advance Internet did the right thing by blocking reporters’ access to registration information. But that doesn’t mean that the Plain Dealer did anything wrong.

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