Talk with the Editor: Were we wrong to be cautious in IDing educator?
I've got a question for you today.
On April 18, we first reported a story that a dean at Stevenson High School had resigned amid allegations he sent "inappropriate" text messages to an 18-year-old student.
The messages were exchanged over several months, according to Lincolnshire police who investigated. Police Chief Peter Kinsey described them as "odd" but not criminal in nature or overtly sexual. Subsequently, police reports indicated that in one message, the dean described the student's clothes as "hot;" in another, he cautioned the student not to come back from a trip "with a venereal disease."
"Most parents or adults, if they read the text messages, would find them disturbing and inappropriate for a faculty-student relationship," Kinsey said.
But no laws were broken. Authorities have not filed charges and do not expect to do so. There has been no indication that anything else went on.
Editors here debated whether to identify the dean. As a rule, we usually do not identify crime suspects unless they have been charged with a crime or we are certain that they are about to be charged, and the dean wasn't going to be charged with anything.
That argument won out on the first day of reporting. We did not identify him. To do so, many editors here argued, could unfairly harm his reputation if all of this was in the end a misjudgment but somehow a fairly innocent one. We were virtually alone in that decision. Most other news media reports identified him by name.
Nonetheless, we still did not identify him when we reported on the story again the next day.
But after our reporters got more detail on the case several days later, we debated among ourselves again.
This time, on April 25, we decided to identify him. We based that argument on the notion that we were identifying him as a public figure of sorts who had resigned, not as the suspect of a crime. A high school dean is no bookkeeper. He is a celebrity to a degree to hundreds of students and parents and faculty at the school and in the community. Who he is, not just what his job was, matters.
There remained a strong argument about whether his reputation could be harmed. But it was countered by a strong argument that that damage was caused by the resignation, not the reporting of it -- and that future employers, parents and students needed to be able to weigh that information or they could in fact be harmed by its suppression.
Frankly, I think we got it wrong the first time, but finally got it right at the end.
But at least the episode proved out a cautionary admonition a wise editor taught me years ago: "If you're wrong, you can always put something in the paper later. But you can't take something out once it's been published."
But let me know what you think. Did we screw up? Or was it good to be so cautious? What could we have done differently?
• (We encourage you to talk with the editor by clicking on the Comments widget and providing your response to today's column. We want a provocative discussion but one that also abides by general rules of civility ... We expect to publish some of today's comments in the print editions ... Please also consider friending John on Facebook by searching John Lampinen Daily Herald and following him on Twitter @DHJohnLampinen)
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