Defunct Web Pages are Not Dead Ends to Journalists

In my “News Writing” class, I first warned students about doxing — the troll technique of harassing people by posting personal details (which enables pranks like ordering unwanted pizza deliveries or serious crimes like reporting fake hostage situations in order to send SWAT teams to the addresses of people you want to harass). I warned them not to dox anyone.

Then I showed students how to use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to find cached copies of long-dead websites, and how to use public domain registration histories to associate web addresses with the names, email addresses, street addresses, and telephone numbers of the people who registered the domains, and then how to use those details to help a reporter identify a lead.

Dennis G. Jerz | Associate Professor of English -- New Media Journalism, Seton Hill University | jerz.setonhill.eduIn about five minutes, I showed them the Facebook page of the person who registered a now-defunct website that once sold a controversial product that has been in the news lately.

I warned them that it’s not a crime to answer a call to a number that was once associated with a website that sold a controversial product. Neither is it a crime to close down a website and downplay public evidence of your involvement in it. .

While the public actions of celebrities and politicians, who have chosen to live their life in the public eye, are pretty much fair game for reporters, an ethical journalist has an obligation to respect the privacy of individual citizens whose lives happen to intersect with the lives of celebrities.

But a good reporter can certainly use this information to follow up on leads. And, that, by itself, is a good reason not to publish private details. (Let the other reporters work for the story, and try to get your potential contact to take advantage of the opportunity to give his/her side of the story, before details spill over into the knowledge of the general public.)

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