Wick Communications

‘You can’t erase history’

In Ethics on February 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Chances are, someone has asked you or your editor to remove a story from your online archives. It could be that he doesn’t want his DUI arrest following him around on Google for the rest of his life. Maybe an unflattering business profile just sits wrong. Or maybe, as in this case, someone has died and the bad news just keeps on living.

This is kind of a convoluted story. But the essence is this: A former University of California football player — No. 44 in your Cal football program — died following a fight with bouncers at a San Francisco nightclub. Actually, the fight had nothing to do with his death – he died several years later under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

His grieving parents don’t think it’s right that friends and family who might search for Chris Purtz’s name online will come upon his arrest and alcohol problems first – not the fact that he was high school class president or a great student or a football star.

Long story short, the administrator of a small claims court in Fresno last week threw out the suit for technical reasons. Here’s what I think: It’s sad that the dead man’s family has to read this stuff online. It’s not the newspaper’s fault (as the editor of the Daily Cal student newspaper said, “You can’t erase history.”) but that doesn’t necessarily relieve us of the need to be responsible human beings…

I had a pair of somewhat similar situations just last week and I think they illustrate just how delicate these situations are and that sometimes they call for a little compassion and common sense.

First, a Jiu-Jitsu instructor who pleaded no contest in 2007 to charges of child molestation wrote me a very nice letter asking that I remove stories of his arrest and no contest plea from our Web site. He said that, after being sent back to his native Brazil, he was subject to death threats and harassment because of the his past. I wrote him back to say that I was sorry to hear that, but that it was his actions and not our stories that caused his problem. Request denied.

Conversely, the family of a beloved acting and music teacher in town called to ask that we take down news that the man had died after a long bout with cancer. They said they wanted a chance to tell his young students before they read about it on the Internet. After some back and forth, we decided the right thing to do was to honor the family’s wishes. Not forever, just for a day or so. In my view, the man wasn’t a public figure. No one needed to know about the death right away. And it seemed like a small thing to do for the family of a stand-up local guy whom everyone loved. But I admit it was a close, tough call. You might have handled it differently.

Phil Bronstein, the executive vice president of the San Francisco Chronicle, acknowledged the nuance in the Purtz case in his column this week on The Huffington Post: “If we’re going to stand on journalistic principle in refusing to take down stories, we need at least to acknowledge the collateral damage of doing what’s right. Sometimes we’re standing on other people.”

— Clay

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