Before running the cyber-bullying story, the editorial staff debated publishing screen shots of the tweets and whether to blot out users’ handles and pictures. In the end, they decided that revealing the hecklers identities would spark a much-needed debate about the culture of bullying and rape, and how some students and administrators were helping perpetuate it. As DeRienzo wrote on the Journal Register Company’s blog, Connecticut Newsroom, last Thursday:
By publishing the actual messages, we made this real in a way that writing a story about unnamed kids would not.
We gave the city, the state and the country a taste of how horrifying and uncomfortable it has been for two 13-year-old girls over the past month who can’t escape the bullying and the nasty comments whether they’re at school or online.
Vaguely summarizing this kind of bullying, identities protected, would have allowed the school district to continue to ignore the problem and the community to assume that it was “someone else’s kid.”
But the fact is that “good kids,” from “good homes”—honor roll students, athletes, male, female—participated in this stuff, and showed a fundamental and staggeringly dangerous misunderstanding about rape, consent and how to treat other people.
The post was part of the paper’s broader policy of transparency. In 2010, the 7,000-circulation daily became the first news organization in the country to transform its newsroom into a public café, with and coffee and pastries, and free public Wi-Fi. Torrington residents are free to roam the newsroom floor, attend daily story meetings, or sit around sipping lattes while reporters tap out their stories. (The New York Times describes the scene as a “sort of Starbucks meets ‘Lou Grant.’”)
Almost as soon as the tweets were published, the paper posted a message on its site urging Torrington residents to attend that afternoon’s editorial meeting for a discussion about “how the high school and community can begin to move forward.” While the paper received a stream of angry messages from students, most of the adults who attended the meeting or commented on the story were sympathetic to the victims, and wanted to find a way to deal with the issues raised in the story. “I’ve been very impressed by the reaction and the tenor of the discussion,” DeRienzo says. “There’s been recognition that there’s something wrong, which needs to be addressed.”
In other words, the paper’s reporting had the intended effect.
But as the story spread, the conversation grew more heated. Late Wednesday night, the self-anointed “hacktivist” collective Anonymous threw down its gauntlet, with an online missive warning that it could not “be held responsible for what happens” to anyone who bullies the victim:
If a bully pops up, it’s likely that some Anon is going to dox them, they’ll be called out on a national level, and for the rest of their lives whenever someone Googles their name you’ll see that they bullied a victim of rape.
Many of the Torrington students whose tweets were published shut down their Twitter accounts or switched the settings to private, but those who remained active were bombarded with angry messages.
Then, Thursday morning, DeRienzo published his blog post, explaining why the paper had chosen to expose the hecklers. This caught the attention of outside journalists, some of whom blasted DeRienzo’s decision on Twitter. Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute, argues the story could be highly damaging to the teens whose tweets were published, especially in a small town like Torrington. And, while she’s sympathetic to the paper’s goal of drawing attention to the cultural problems behind the bullying and alleged rape, she feels the paper’s decision unfairly “places this broader cultural problem on the backs of a select few.”
McBride is also troubled that Glenza didn’t contact people before publishing their tweets. After all, teenagers are known to pull pranks like hacking into each other’s Twitter accounts. “I counsel reporters on the best practices when using social media,” McBride says. “The very first best practice is verify, verify, verify.” She adds, “The graver the circumstances for the individual you’re attributing information to, the greater the obligation to ensure this person really exists, that they really said what you’re quoting them as saying, and that there isn’t some other context that you’re misreading.”