The Google Challenge

Illegal immigrants live in the shadows. But now that one of our journalism students has put a spotlight on one of them, a hard-working UNL sophomore who has been in the U.S. since age 2, the glare is turning out to be too bright.

The result is something of an ethical dilemma for us at the J School. It is also a powerful illustration of how Google makes it impossible to pull a story back once it’s gone public. All in all, the case is rife with lessons for student journalists, a potent teachable moment.

The immigrant at the center of this tale, a promising young psychology major who hails originally from Mexico, willingly talked with our student journalist. She sat for photos. But after the story went out on our Web site, NewsNetNebraska, she phoned our student journalist to ask us to take her name out of it and to strip it of any photos or other identifying information. Essentially, she asked that the piece be killed.

The young woman suggested she didn’t understand the piece would go beyond a class exercise. This was the case, it seems, even though our student journalist maintained it was made clear to her that the information would be published. What’s more, the photo session alone should have brought this home to the woman.

Out of compassion, and a sense that some important questions need to be pursued, however, my colleague opted to yank the piece off our Web site — for now. He left open the possibility that it may be restored in coming days, with more details, once he and our student journalist can get answers to some crucial questions.

Problem and lesson No. 1, though, is that the piece hasn’t really gone away. True, it’s no longer on our site, and visitors get a message to that effect. But Google caches such pieces, it seems, and it remains available at the click of a computer button. As we’ve learned, once something is out on the Net, it’s out for good.

Lesson No. 2: politicians can make people very nervous. This story is playing out against a worrisome Legislative backdrop. Charlie Janssen, a senator in the Nebraska Legislature, is pushing to repeal a two-year-old state law that permits some illegals to pay in-state tuition rates. As a result, the student our journalist wrote about could be at risk if someone in the Capitol pokes around a bit. So, too, could the UNL Admissions folks who let her into school, perhaps especially because University leaders are trying to shoot down Janssen’s effort.

In short, the student could be tossed about like a political football.

From a journalistic standpoint, however, the situation raises a host of questions:

— did she really not understand that the information about her would be published? If not, why would she sit for photos?
— was it proper for her to be admitted to the University in the first place? It seems she was not permitted in under the embattled two-year-old law, the so-called DREAM Act, but rather just came in without a Social Security number.

Our students will be looking further to see if a follow-up is merited, and if the piece ought to be restored to our site. For now, however, it’s already providing a remarkable case study.

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