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Editor column: Closer interaction with readers can pose ethical challenges
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Technology nowadays affords us more opportunity than ever to connect with sources and readers — and you with us.

Closer interaction achieved through social media, online commenting and other advances translates daily into better, more accurate stories that reflect straight-from-the-source information and broader, more inclusive perspective.

Sometimes, though, the more direct access we have to one another presents ethical challenges for us as we strive not to become players in the stories we write.

We approach each challenge with thought and care. In the end, we try to do the right thing.

Such was the case last week when editor Nate Carlisle, reporting a story about a pair of Helper teens on the run since Nov. 29, successfully contacted the teens through a Facebook account another editor discovered they had used to comment on http://www.sltrib.com stories about themselves.

Mattea Jeffs, 17, and her boyfriend, Jesse Turner, 16, saw Carlisle's Facebook post and called him, in the process revealing a California phone number where they were staying.

Their phone call surprised Carlisle but also left him questioning his next step.

"Jeffs and Turner were kids in a dangerous situation. Reporting what they said and that they were calling from Southern California might have only encouraged them to keep running," Carlisle said.

After the teens assured him there were no problems back home in Helper, "I decided it was more ethical to inform their family members how to reach them" than it would have been to report what they said and let the pieces fall as they may, he said.

Carlisle called Jeffs' father and gave him their number, a move that may have led to the pair being taken into custody a day later.

"I'm not a psychologist, but I suspect Turner's [Facebook] postings were a cry for help," he said. "If he really wanted to stay hidden, he would have remained silent."

Another dilemma presented itself last week when an editor noticed what appeared to be a suicide threat in two postings by a commenter at sltrib.com.

Our website's comments section is intentionally anonymous, providing an open forum for free thought to readers who follow the rules. However, we do capture an Internet protocol (IP) address that shows where a commenter connected to the Internet, deputy editor Tim Fitzpatrick said.

In this case, the IP address belonged to a Utah college. Fitzpatrick contacted the college's office of the dean of students to alert the school to the threat. College officials said they would look into it and were grateful for the information.

"It was an unusual step for us but one we decided was justified," Fitzpatrick said.

We didn't know who the commenter was and we still don't, nor do we know whether the threat was a true indication of desperation, he said.

"But in the end, doing nothing did not seem like the right thing to do," Fitzpatrick said. "If there was the chance that someone could be pulled back from the ledge before leaping, that was more important than protecting that person's right to anonymously threaten suicide on our comments boards."

Situations such as these are increasingly common in our changing world, yet as always, we take our responsibility seriously — both as journalists and as humans.

Lisa Carricaburu is a managing editor. She can be reached at lisac@sltrib.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu.

Tribune staffers at times must decide whether to act at risk of becoming part of stories they report.
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