|From the issue dated May 15, 2009|
By STEVE KOLOWICH
When Nickie Dobo wrote a column in 2003 for her college newspaper — The Daily Collegian at Pennsylvania State University — decrying the "hook-up culture" on the campus, she never expected it to resurface years later in an attack on her professional credibility.
But that's what happened when Ms. Dobo, now a reporter for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania, came under criticism by a white-supremacist group. A member of the group posted a link to her hook-up essay in an online forum and ridiculed her standing as a serious journalist.
Disturbed that an article she wrote as a college student could be turned against her in moments with a Google search on her name, Ms. Dobo contacted The Daily Collegian and asked if it would essentially "hide" the article on the paper's Web site so it would be less prominent in any search results.
"I'm an education reporter, so I do a lot with schools and kids," Ms. Dobo said. "It just didn't make me look like a professional." But the editor declined to make the change.
Many college papers report similar incidents. As the papers have begun digitizing their back issues, their Web sites have become the latest front in the battle over online identities. Youthful activities that once would have disappeared into the recesses of a campus library are now preserved on the public record, to be viewed with skeptical eyes by an adult world of colleagues and potential employers. Alumni now in that world are contacting newspapers with requests for redaction. For unlike Facebook profiles — that other notable source of young-adult embarrassment — the ability to remove or edit questionable content in these cases is out of the author's hands.
'No Legal Reason'
When Terrence J. Casey, then the Collegian's editor, got Ms. Dobo's request, he referred to a policy put in place by previous editors: The Daily Collegian does not remove any editorial content from its Web site. However, if there is a factual inaccuracy in a story, the editors will run a correction or an update as needed.
Lyle, a graduate of Emory University who asked that his last name be withheld because he is in the military, got pretty much the same response from The Emory Wheel, where he served as opinion editor for three years before graduating in 2005 and joining the Marine Corps. Lyle had sounded off on domestic politics, the wars, and economic policy in a column that is preserved in the paper's Web archives. "If any of my Marines were to end up Googling me, I'd feel uncomfortable with them knowing my own politics," he said. "As a rule, politics and the military don't mix."
Policies forbidding revisions in the absence of provable factual errors are generally derived from similar policies at professional newspapers and rooted in lofty principles. "Newspapers are used to document history as it happens, and we consider ourselves historians of the State College community," says Mr. Casey. "So for us to remove any information would be, in essence, altering Penn State's history."
Aside from journalistic stands against changing history, "there's certainly no legal reason to do it," says Adam J. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center. Lawsuits are sometimes threatened, he says, but rarely carried out.
One notable exception came in 2007, when the Cornell University alumnus Kevin G. Vanginderen, a lawyer, sued the Cornell Chronicle, which is a university-run publication, over a newly digitized article from 1983. The article reported that he had been charged with burglary while a student at Cornell. Mr. Vanginderen found the article after Googling his name and claimed that its new presence online was causing him "mental anguish" and "loss of reputation." But a California judge threw out the case after determining the report to be accurate.
The 'Human Factor'
But while there may not be any legal or "journalistic" reason to indulge these redaction requests, Mr. Goldstein allows that "sometimes things are more complicated than journalism." There is, as he puts it, a "human factor."
"It's fair to weigh the value of this information as public record versus the humiliation it's going to cause that individual," he says. "Journalism makes that accommodation all the time — when it doesn't list the name of a rape victim or doesn't publish the name of a minor."
With Web publishing, the stakes are far higher than they were when old issues of student newspapers would disappear into the depths of the university library. And while college newspapers strive to uphold professional codes, some editors are willing to be flexible. It is college, after all.
"At the very least we can create an environment where they can experiment and learn, and not be strung up completely when they make a mistake," says Michael King, editor of the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who says he is amenable to requests from former contributors.
Amy Ledig, editor in chief of The Mac Weekly at Macalester College, recently capitulated to a plea for redaction from a woman who feared her comments in an article about underage drinking would cast a pall over her job applications. "I'm a little torn about it," Ms. Ledig said, "but at the same time, I don't feel the need to torpedo her job chances, and the story was fine without her quote."
The University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News was getting four or five calls a week last spring from nervous seniors before it decided to simply stop publishing the local police blotter. That column frequently named students in underage drinking, public intoxication, and fake-ID offenses.
Katelyn Polantz, departing editor in chief, did sympathize with the students. "People make mistakes in college," she says, "and if you're unlucky enough to make a mistake on campus and be caught by campus police, why should that stick with your searchable personal data forever, while an arrest that happened 10 feet away by the city police wouldn't matter?" Still, she declined to take down archived blotters.
Some student papers, like The University Daily Kansan, of the University of Kansas, have found a middle way by "darkening" certain pages to Web searches. Mr. Goldstein, the Student Press Law Center lawyer, recently suggested this compromise to the Kansan's editor, Brenna Hawley. He says the process is technically straightforward and involves manipulating the page's metatags — data embedded in the page's coding — in such a way that the document stays online, but search engines such as Google do not index it.
"I thought that would be better than kind of like sticking it to [the alum] and saying the paper is always right and we can publish anything on the Web we want," says Ms. Hawley. "There's no reason to ... when we have a way to make it so we please both parties."
That might not completely resolve alumni worries. Brian Farkas, historian and former editor of Vassar's Miscellany News, said several years ago the editors agreed to "darken" an article, and the employer still found it after sifting through the paper's Web site. "I think it would be naïve for alumni to think that employers won't look beyond a simple Google search," he says.
Owning the Past
While most editors said they had not noticed a significant difference in whether students are more reluctant to submit letters or talk to reporters, many said they could definitely envision it becoming difficult to wrangle commentary from students as the immortality of online newspaper content becomes more widely appreciated. But should job-seeking students and alumni really be so concerned about what a prospective employer might dig up in old articles?
Not really, says Anita C. Ervin, lead senior recruiter for Linde North America Inc. and a 35-year veteran of corporate recruiting. An unpolished résumé or inarticulate cover letter is far more likely to cost someone a job, she says: "I don't care what you did before, I care what you can do for me right now."
Helen Hong, college-relations manager for the health-insurance giant Wellpoint, says the degree of damage an unflattering article might inflict on a career probably depends on the type of career a student or graduate is hoping for. Creative industries tend not to care too much, Ms. Hong says, but some corporations, law firms, and political organizations might. The important thing, she says, is that applicants be prepared to explain themselves if the subject of one of these articles comes up in an interview.
Owning their online legacies — rather than trying to kick dirt over them — is what students and alumni should focus on, says Bryan S. Murley, an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University and director for innovation at the Center for Innovation in College Media. "The solution to me is not to try to erase the past, but to correct it with better work in the present."
Mr. Murley contends the best way to dilute old, embarrassing Web content is to publish new, positive Web content. "If the first thing that comes up on a Google search is something they did in college because they haven't done anything since college, then they should participate more in the online conversation," he says. "Hopefully five or 10 years from now, people won't be so worried about this, because everybody will have their Internet trail, and it will become more acceptable."
Section: Information Technology
Volume 55, Issue 36, Page A1