The girl with no name


As a reporter, one of the hardest things to know is when to keep your mouth shut.

It goes against every instinct to hold back information, to not report facts. Sometimes we’re held back by promises to sources or other obligations. And sometimes, the wisdom of our newsroom predecessors, handed down from editor to writer, holds us back.

The Daily Dot’s decision not to publish the name of a teenage girl who appeared in a sexually explicit video—even though her name was all over YouTube and Twitter—was guided by tradition: You don’t name people who may be victims of sex crimes unless they come forward.

Add to that the likelihood that she was underage, which could mean the video itself is child pornography, and you’ve got a subject that any rational editor would treat with kid gloves.

But the community inhabiting Twitter and YouTube, who shape the news for their peers through those site’s trend-tracking tools, have no such compunction.

Indeed, many people are posting videos asking others to leave the teenager alone, and it likely hasn’t crossed their minds that just repeating her name compounds the damage.

There are so many twists to this story, like wild rumors that she may have committed suicide, and the appearance of a Twitter account that may or may not belong to the girl in question where she appears to tell her side of the story, and it’s even harder to know what to do.

Whether you style yourself as a journalist or not.

Twitter has long been wrestling with what to do about offensive topics. There’s a lot of confusion, speculation, and misinformation about Twitter’s Trending Topics list, with unproven charges of censorship flying.

Twitter does remove some popular terms from Trending Topics—for example, profanity. But beyond that, it tries to take a light hand. Even though Twitter’s CEO has said he’d like to strip out “clearly offensive” topics, Twitter’s top spokesman, Sean Garrett, told me Tuesday, “There has been no change in policy.” That policy isn’t really made clear on the site: All users are told is that Trending Topics have to follow “the Twitter Rules.”

Those rules don’t provide much guidance in the case of this troubled, tweeted-about teen. Passing around the link to the video is clearly verboten, and Twitter has suspended accounts for that offense.

But is her very name the kind of “private information” Twitter users aren’t supposed to spread? If she’s the victim of a sex crime, then perhaps it is—at least by the fusty standards of traditional journalism. But Twitter doesn’t seem to be shutting down accounts for merely mentioning her.

I’m not suggesting Twitter should take on a more censorious path. Twitter’s Costolo has already made that suggestion, and it’s up to him and his team to wrestle with that question. And the law has already determined that Twitter is no more responsible for what you tweet than AT&T is for what you say over the phone.

So the question is what responsibilities we have as members of a society where anyone can make the news.

We journalists don’t take the unusual and uncomfortable step of censoring ourselves when it comes to sex-crime victims’ names out of any legal obligation. We do it simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Outside of a tight-knit newsroom, can we enforce standards for what’s newsworthy or not? Can we even agree on them?

The old levers of control are rusting away. Take, for example, the nastygram that actress Ally Maki’s representation sent us after we reported that she was the subject of speculation online about a lawsuit filed by an unnamed Asian actress against Maki said she’s not the actress in question, but the fact that people were talking about her is interesting, and we’re not going to delete a truthful assertion to that effect.

But Maki is a grownup, and a public figure. And to her credit, she has a sense of humor about the whole thing. She might want to loan some of that to her agent.

It seems inevitable, in a decentralized Internet, that we’ll have to change our thinking about what’s off limits. And the Daily Dot is, by and large, in favor of this: More speech is almost always better than less speech.

Nevertheless, it felt right to take a stand on this story. Maybe I’m King Canute, shouting commands at the tide. After all, some lesser-known news sites have taken to naming her. As the wave of hashtags lap at my feet, this is a time I’d rather drown bravely than dive in.

Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas was the founding executive editor of the Daily Dot before becoming the editor in chief of Read Write. A former managing editor for Valleywag, Thomas also was an executive editor for VentureBeat and now serves as business editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.