An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Is There Room For Compassion in the Age of Linking?

Several years ago, Chris Purtz was an honor student and football player at U.C. Berkeley. One night, he went out with some buddies, things got rowdy, and he was eventually kicked out of a strip club.

Longtime San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein retraces the story as he wonders whether any of it should have been published at all.

Chris, a former U.C. honor student and football star, who was accused of behaving very badly at a San Francisco strip club. No charges were filed, nor police report made…

But the Daily Cal interviewed club employees and a surveillance camera showed some scuffling. The incident got him suspended from the Bears football team.

Chris’ mom met with the Daily Cal staff back then to dissuade them from running a piece about the incident. Her son had a brain disorder, she said, and the press would make things much worse, according to documents in a subsequent suit. The story ran anyway.

Chris Purtz was suspended from the Cal football team. His life spiraled. By last June, he was dead.

At the time of his death, obituaries written about Purtz linked back to the original story about that night in the strip club. Purtz’ parents begged the current editor of the Daily Cal to take the story down. At one point, they even brought a lawsuit against the paper. Their requests were denied, the lawsuit was rejected.

Even an extremely experienced editor like Bronstein wonders if the idea of the freedom of the press should trump compassion in every case.

I should be a hawk on the rules; I’ve lobbied hard in Washington for press rights, and am no stranger to suits against the press. But I’m also a human being who’s learned that compassion is likewise a bulwark against a punishing and repressive society.

“Journalism ethics aren’t black and white,” says Tom Rosenstiel of Washington’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “We’ve removed stories because they were hurtful and no longer relevant. In the Purtz case, which Rosenstiel didn’t know, “different people could come to different conclusions. At least if you take it down there should be a placeholder explaining why.” Ethics in journalism, by nature, are “situational,” he says, because every story is different.

“Compassion is the hardest part of an editor’s job description.”

The question of compassion is all the more relevant in the age of linking. If these events had taken place twenty years ago, there’s a decent chance that Chris Purtz’s obituary would’ve made no mention of the night he got into some trouble. And even if it had, it certainly would not have provided a link to the full story for details.

Anyone can sympathize with the plight of Chris Purtz’ parents. No one wants their child’s legacy to be defined by one article with a high page rank. But the struggle we all face when it comes to defining our own stories is hardly limited to obituaries. As I suggested in an earlier post — I’ve Seen Your Future and It’s Been Edited — it can take a lot of work to make sure the good stuff about you shows up in Google above the bad stuff. There is a whole new ecosystem of companies such as Reputation Defender that promise to help customers achieve that goal.

But sometimes the efforts to bury the negative items on the web don’t work. Or sometimes the timing of those efforts is a little bit off. And as Chris Purtz parents know all to well, the negative stories on the web don’t die, even when their subjects do.

So as Phil Bronstein suggests, we’re looking for a level of compassion that can advance as fast as the technologies we use to distribute the news. When I read comments, tweets and blog posts, it sure seems like our levels of compassion are moving at the right pace, but in the wrong direction.

Read Phil’s complete article here.

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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.