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A lesson in law and respect

Covering sensitive topics can sometimes be tricky business. Last week, Gazette reporter Colin Farrell tackled a story involving an online poll that cast dispersions on several female students at Marystown Central High School.

The story is important in that it offered up valuable information in the public interest.

Farrell covered all the possible bases when he reported on the fact police were investigating the poll.

He sought out information from local police and the school board and they offered comment on the situation.

He also sought out students who had been the targets. They declined to comment, as is their right to do so.

We certainly appreciate that the situation they have been placed in, through no fault of their own, has been a difficult one to deal with.

However, when the story was posted online on Thursday, people were quick to question why we did the story at all, accusing us of being somewhat disrespectful to the people who had been the target of the online post.

Their contention was that by reporting on what had happened, it was just giving the perpetrator(s) what they wanted in the first place — more publicity — and the victims more embarrassment.

However, we determined that the story needed to be told because it was in the public interest.

While the subject of the story was difficult, Farrell did what a decent journalist does — he offered up a story that was short on salacious details (we had no interest in publishing what had been posted on the site), and he sought out factual information from police and school officials.

The questions he focused on — and which the public needs to be aware of — were: Was this a police matter? How did the school or school board plan to deal with this situation?

The story also offered up a lesson about the use of social media.

The hope is that most people who use Facebook, Twitter and the like use common sense and not as a tool to denigrate another person.

Most people, we hope, would show the same respect to others on social media sites that they would show if they were talking to that person, face to face.

Unfortunately, we know from stories that have cropped up in the past few months — not just in Marystown but in other areas of Newfoundland, in other schools, and in the world beyond — that some folks have the warped and misguided thought that these kinds of things are ‘fun’ and a ‘joke’.

That’s why Farrell ensured that this story would focus on the legal implications of the actions of the person or persons who had posted the poll, and the fact they may face criminal charges.

That is the public interest in telling this story: to let people know that you can get into serious trouble for what they post on social media and the Internet.

That causing emotional hurt is subject to criminal conviction.

That respect should be your mantra.

And that everyone — schools, students, the community at large — should be careful how they use social media, to ensure no one gets hurt.

We should note that the day after Farrell’s story appeared online, a person stepped forward to claim responsibility for the poll and offered an apology to all who had been affected by it.

The police say they will not pursue the matter any further.

Our hope is that in this matter, a valuable lesson has been learned.

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