For a long time on Thursday morning, a stunningly beautiful photograph of a young woman was at the top of my Facebook feed. I have never met this woman. But I know she committed suicide 6 months ago, and some other facts about her life and tragic end.
Her face was on my feed because I had linked to a Cleveland Plain Dealer story about David Franklin’s resignation from the Cleveland Museum of Art. The piece, published the morning of October 24, told me the woman’s name, her background and the circumstances around her death.
I spent much of the morning staring at her face. It unnerved me. “I should not be looking at this picture,” I said to myself, and deleted the story from my feed. So too did the Plain Dealer: by early afternoon, the photo was gone, replaced by one of Franklin observing a conservator repair a damaged painting, as if the paper itself was commenting on damage it might have done by publishing the woman’s photo.
But for a bit there I was confused: sometimes photos show up on Facebook feeds that are unrelated to the article. Maybe that face was not of the woman discussed in the article but a random photograph from another story? The only way I could find out, since the Plain Dealer did not mention any picture redaction, was to Google her. Which led me, appropriately and horribly, back to Facebook, and her page. We have, to use the wretched continual present tense of Facebook, four mutual friends. I was becoming inutterly sad.
Googling further, I realized that Cleveland Scene changed their coverage of the Franklin story several times. Some changes are indicated by crossing out and replacing words as the story is updated, so I assumed that was their policy. But someone on Twitter claims they made a significant change at some point that cannot now be found. Someone else on Facebook said they did print the woman’s name, but then took it down and did not append a correction.
Lacking the requisite caches I cannot verify either claim. So consider this an unsubstantiated statement. Which is how Scene approached the story when they first reported on it: allegations of an affair were provided only through anonymous sources.
I wish I had never seen the face of this woman, and I wish I did not know her name. I also wish I did not know the name of David Franklin’s wife, which the Plain Dealer also told me.
But that is not the point of this column. The wishes of an individual spending too much time online on a Thursday morning need not be abided by.
However, in addition to being an individual resident of Cleveland, I am also the editor-in-chief of Belt, so I have a professional interest in the question of how such a story is covered. Should her name have been published? Should the Plain Dealer have noted that they changed the originally published photo? What are the rules? What are the ethics?
I have a PhD in American Literature, not a Masters in Journalism: I may write for “journals” (and newspapers and magazines and websites), but rarely do I report news, and never do I break it. So I do not use “journalist” to describe myself, because I sometimes do not know the answers to the above questions. When it comes to difficult, sensitive and ethical issues of online news, I claim no expertise.
So I asked others why they chose to—or not to—print the woman’s name.
Cleveland Scene, which reported about the affair and the details surrounding the night the woman died, stated in a story also published on October 24, that they “would not use her name,” a phrase that recalls journalistic conventions against naming minors and rape victims.
On Twitter, I asked editor Vince Grzegorek and writer Sam Allard of Cleveland Scene why they made that statement. Allard tweeted back: “Out of respect for young woman and her family. We’ll print her name when we have their blessing.” Grzegorek tweeted a slightly different response: “out of respect to the family, but also because it didn’t add anything to the story until if/when we can tell her full story.”
Then I asked Thom Fladung, managing editor of the Plain Dealer, the same question, and he responded that “our overall philosophy is to keep names in”. Then the paper asks if “there is a compelling reason to not identify someone.“ The Plain Dealer decided that, since “the affair was a contributing factor to the story,” “the woman was a known figure, not public but not anonymous,” and that if the paper said “former museum employee” then “people would speculate,” they would name her.
I then asked two experts in media ethics this same question. They too responded with opposing answers. Kelly McBride, an ethicist with the Poynter Institute argues for disclosing “because if you don’t specifically identify her, you imply that it could be almost any employee. So you cause more harm by letting the audience fill in the blanks.” But Janet Leach, a professor who teaches ethics at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, argues that “even though the woman in this case is dead, there is potential harm in naming her–harm to her family and to Franklin and his family, ” and cites a study done by the American Journalism Review on the effects of public disclosures of suicides. Leach continues: “it’s not unusual and is generally accepted that the names of non-public suicide victims whose suicide occurs in a non-public space are not published or broadcast” and that “the detail about the suicide, which is apparently taken from public record, is several months old and other than Franklin finding her body there’s no authoritative information how their ‘relationship’ connects to the suicide. Reporting it helps answer some questions but will not stop gossip.”
Since Belt is not in the business of competing to break stories like the Franklin resignation, we do not have to contend with the questions of anonymous sources or stories that change by the hour. But it struck me, as I kept asking questions and receiving disparate responses, that, if nothing else, Belt could help readers understand the complexities of online journalism and how our publication sees its role in this chaotic space.
When we designed Belt, we made several choices integral to our mission. First, we decided to see if we could launch an online publication that would financially viable without being driven by page views, or how many people click on our stories. We run three stories each week, a slow pace necessary if we are to edit each piece several times before publishing it, and to get our facts right. We ask writers to fact-check pieces before submitting them, and we do additional fact-checking in the editing process. We do not always get everything correct, though, and since we are online, it is tempting, if we make a mistake, to simply change the story. But our policy is to append a correction to the bottom of any story we change. (You can find corrections appended to several of our stories.)
We borrowed these conventions for how to fact-check and correct stories from the world of print journalism, and, since we are only two months old, it remains to be seen if they will continue to be viable online. And as my questions about disclosing the name of the woman reveal, even print journalists do not always agree.
We are making it up as we go. And so is everyone else, to a certain degree. There is no authoritative handbook. There are no inviolate statutes.
So readers of the coverage of the Franklin story will have to decide for themselves what is and is not appropriate. As for Belt—well, we may not be publishing the woman’s name, but we are linking to stories that do, so if we have any moral high ground, it is but a hillock. Here is a rundown of how other outlets have handled coverage of this story as of noon on October 25:
New York: quotes Plain Dealer coverage that mentions name.
CultureGrrl, a highly respected blogger in the art world, expresses reservations about the Plain Dealer coverage.
Art in America does not mention name.
Art Journal reluctantly linked to Cleveland Scene coverage.
By the time you read this, the links above may have changed. So too may have the policies of the local publications. The only certainty is confusion, and individual decisions about which pictures each of us does, or does not, want on our Facebook feed.
Anne Trubek is editor-in-chief of Belt.
an earlier version of this piece included, inside a quote, the last name of the woman in question. It has since been changed.