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Case studies in new ethical challenges in online journalism

When a Google search serves up fraud

By Jasmine Linabary, Dotcom Journalists

Allen Kraus had been praised for his office’s efforts to uncover fraud when he was deputy commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (Hoyt, 2007). But when he got a new boss, everything changed.

Kraus disagreed with his new boss, Commissioner Barbara J. Sabol, over budget and staffing issues and resigned in June 1991, having headed the agency for four years (Hoyt). Six weeks later, his boss announced his resignation in a press release dealing with an investigation of his office that led to multiple arrests in fraud and bribery (Hoyt).

A Goolge Search of 'Allen Kraus' on Feb. 17, 2009

A Goolge Search of 'Allen Kraus' on Feb. 17, 2009

The New York Times reported about the fraud investigation and in the article Sabol implied that Kraus had resigned under pressure in light of the investigation and poor oversight in his office (Morgan, 6 held). Kraus was not interviewed. The article detailed the announcement of arrests and warrants for 27 people connected to a multimillion dollar welfare fraud scheme, including bribery of city employees.

Investigators found more than 800 cases in which payments and food stamps were not properly disbursed, costing the city $9.3 million (Morgan). The investigation had been going on since January with some of the fraudulent claims dating back to 1986 (Morgan).

Kraus, angered by the report, contacted Sabol and the New York Times. Sabol later issued a press release that said there was no evidence of criminal culpability on Kraus’ part and his resignation was not connected to the investigation.

Morgan wrote a second, shorter article after now interviewing Kraus, giving his side of the story. Kraus said his office had first identified the fraud scheme and alerted investigators and that Sabol didn’t discuss the investigation or any problems with his management with him.

All of this happened more than 16 years ago. Now the New York Times archives are available online and Kraus, in 2007, was forming a health forming a health consulting business with clients across the United States. But the first thing that was popping up on a Google search for his name was not the home page of his business, but the New York Times articles implying his connection to the fraud case.

He contacted the New York Times and wanted them taken down, fearing its costing him clients.

Kraus is not the only one to make such requests to the Times, which receives at least one complaint a day that someone is concerned about an article that appears in their Google search either because of embarrassment, error or lack of followup (Hoyt).

The New York Times’ response has generally been the same: do nothing. Removing articles from archives is like removing it from the historical record, editors said (Hoyt). But, editors also recognized that the Internet has opened up material that was once only available on microfilm in the newspaper’s or the public library and questioned their obligation to minimize harm (Hoyt).

Then-public editor Clark Hoyt took on the topic in his column in August 2007, providing Kraus as an example cause and suggesting that in such cases something must be done. However, the solution is not clear. He cited options such as re-reporting challenged stories, pulling them from archives, and tricking the archives so they appear lower in the search among others. All of these solutions present a challenge based on the number of requests publications like the New York Times receives (Hoyt).

Hoyt’s column was addressed and attacked by members of the media community. The Poynter Institute responded by creating their own question and answer on what they do when they receive requests to “unpublish,” or take articles off the Web. They agreed that solutions are difficult, that taking an article down is one of the very last things considered and suggested appending a note or a flag to the article that it’s in error if there is evidence that it is incorrect as another solution (Steele & Mitchell, 2007).

Jack Shafer of Slate.com pointed out that Hoyt didn’t provide evidence of harm done to Kraus’ reputation and said it was a non-issue. The idea that a link in a Google search is indicative of someone’s reputation he deemed silly, suggesting that it is the searchers fault for jumping to conclusions not a problem of the Web or the New York Times (Shafer, Part 1).

Shafer’s solution was for people like Kraus to do something about it themselves rather than petitioning the New York Times. He recommended purchasing their own domain names, putting their resumes on it, linking to stories that explain what actually happen, and persuading others to link to it to boost its rankings in a Google search.

Following Shafer’s column, software architect Jon Garkunkel, who blogs at Civilities.net, started working to push Kraus’ existing home page up in the rankings. He said the reason it was invisible was because nobody linked to it. He suggested other sites give him a little link love and soon his personal site was at the top of the search (Shafter, Part 2).

Today the two New York Times stories don’t even appear in a Google search, at least not within the first 10 pages. Aside from his personal site which is currently at the top, most of the links are related to Hoyt’s article.

—–

Works cited

-Hoyt, C. (2007, Aug. 26). When bad news follows you. New York Times. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/opinion/26pubed.html?pagewanted=1&n=Top/Opinion/The%20Public%20Editor&_r=1

-Morgan, T. (1991, July 12). 6 held in welfare fraud scheme; inquiry uncovered worker bribes. New York Times. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE0D61F3CF931A25754C0A967958260&scp=5&sq=%22Allen+Kraus%22+New+York+City+Human+Resources+Administration&st=nyt

—-. (1991, July 13). A welfare official denies he resigned because of inquiry. New York Times. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEEDE1E31F930A25754C0A967958260&scp=1&sq=%22Allen+Kraus%22+New+York+City+Human+Resources+Administration&st=nyt

-Shafer, J. (2007, Aug. 27). Blaming the Times for your bad reputation. Slate.com. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://www.slate.com/id/2172701/

—-. (2007, Sept. 6). Blaming the Times for your bad reputation Part 2. Slate.com. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://www.slate.com/id/2173501/

-Steele, B. & Mitchell, B. (2007, Aug. 28). Removing content: When to unring the bell. Poynter Institute. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2009, from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=129083

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One Response

  1. […] some people, it drudges up old information that they do not want revealed and then want information taken down. Or, maybe nothing is found except some old information from high school or a few articles you have […]

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