How the internet won’t let a Madison man move on

In this story, WISC-TV/Channel 3000 rolls out a new policy and takes a close look at media responsibility—including our own—in the internet age
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Zachary Wisniewski, outside Just Bakery on Madison’s east side (WISC-TV/Channel 3000 photo)

MADISON, Wis. — Today, Zachary Wisniewski is an instructor. Five years ago, he was a teenager struggling with addiction.

But in the internet’s eyes, he is something he says he never was: a pimp.

Teaching baking measurements and employment skills at an organization committed to helping people find stability after incarcerated pasts isn’t what Zachary Wisniewski, 24, pictured himself doing five years ago.

In 2017, Wisniewski was a teenager in Dane County, struggling with a drug addiction he says started because of trauma, assault, and forced medication at a Christian boarding school in Florida that has since shut down.

Bail-jumping and low-level drug crimes landed him a 9-month jail sentence with work release and an enrollment in drug court when Stoughton police arrested him and two others in a sting they billed as a lengthy drug and prostitution investigation. Wisniewski himself wasn’t accused of prostitution, and neither of the others would ultimately be charged with the crime; the Dane County district attorney’s office brought only low level drug charges against all three people.

But he was named as part of the investigation, and subsequent news headlines in all of the area’s media outlets—including Channel 3000—would link him and two others permanently to the highly-stigmatized crime that ultimately wasn’t charged—and therefore never proven in a court of law.

Stoughton police haven’t yet returned the police reports for this case, requested three weeks ago, but court records reference a criminal informant and hearsay from area businesses for the accusation. When reached for comment, the police detective named in the records said it was a district attorney policy rather than lack of evidence that stopped prostitution from being charged, and said the case was “much bigger” than the court records referenced.

Wisniewski can only speculate about why prostitution was included in initial police accusations or whether it was indeed happening at the apartment, since he was jailed and only free during the day on work release at the time. (The other person, also a teenager at the time and accused but not charged with the crime, has since passed away so their side of the story cannot be told.*)

“It should be innocent till proven guilty, not guilty till proven innocent,” Wisniewski said in an interview. “I can fight for it…but nobody knows their side.”

Regardless of what happened or didn’t happen, Wisniewski is firm on one thing: he never participated in and had no knowledge of the crime the Stoughton police press release and, subsequently, news outlets and the internet have permanently linked him to.

His actual crime, by his own words and court records: Selling $5 Xanax pills to friends, in an effort to continue feeding his own addiction. He’d been using and selling marijuana and Xanax since leaving the boarding school when he had fallen in with the “wrong crowd”, he said, and he was in rehab trying to recover when the last charges came in.

The judge in his case, he said, recognized he was struggling and trying to provide for his habit: he was sentenced to three years probation rather than more jail time. He was ultimately connected to the Just Dane organization which gave him a second chance when other employers wouldn’t. Today, he serves as Just Bakery’s lead instructor, training others in basic bakery and employment skills needed to secure jobs after troubled pasts.

“Yes, I was a drug dealer. Yes, I made dumb decisions. And yes, I clearly was involved with the wrong people,” he said in an interview. But it isn’t the drug charges that provide most of the stigma he faces today.

“It was a big battle to tell people, ‘That’s not who I am, that’s not me,’” he said.

Media responsibility in the internet age

This story began when Wisniewski reached out to the WISC-TV/Channel 3000 newsroom in April, asking for the article to be removed because it included crimes that were not ultimately charged.

In 2021, our newsroom adopted a policy currently gaining traction in newsrooms around the United States: we no longer name suspects in major crime stories until they are formally charged with the crime. There are a few editorial exceptions, largely for public officials or issues of public safety.

Under the policy, neither Wisniewski nor the two other people would have been named in the initial article based on the Stoughton police press release—an article we have since removed. And because the headlining crime was never formally charged, it is unlikely a follow-up article would ever have been published, as we typically do not report on low-level drug crimes.

“The policy essentially is really forcing yourself to take a paradigm shift,” WISC-TV assistant news director Lane Kimble said. “Is there a good reason to put this person’s name out there at this point? It really gets you thinking about the story, the implications of your coverage, and what putting their name and their face out there is going to do.”

For decades, naming people accused by police in crimes before they are formally charged has been a standard newsroom practice, according to Kathleen Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics.

“It was very commonly done,” Culver explained. “I started as a police and courts reporter, and I reported arrests all the time. Boy, do I wish I could go back and un-ring that bell. It was just seen as a standard practice.”

RELATED: Join Kathleen Culver and this story’s author Naomi Kowles for a complete conversation on this issue: Sunday, May 8, on WISC-TV’s ‘For the Record’ at 10:30 on CBS

Today, that’s starting to change—partly thanks to training and a modified approach to crime reporting, pioneered by news ethics organizations like the Carole Kneeland Project, where Kimble was trained on the policy.

Names are still constantly released by police as suspects or persons of interest before formal charges are made: in incident reports, press conferences, public releases. And while charges often follow, naming them in news reports has a profound impact for those where charges are either different than initial accusations—or don’t come altogether.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Kimble noted. “Once somebody’s name is out there, especially in the age of the internet, you can’t put it back in…that’s with them the rest of their life, fairly or not.”

Removing identification from the historical record

A policy choosing not to name suspects before formal charges is only one small part of newsroom trends evolving to reckon with media responsibility in an internet era.

Newsrooms around the country are reevaluating how to balance the responsibility of maintaining a community’s public record while also remaining cognizant of how internet and Google permanency will affect people’s lives long after old mistakes. It’s something that media outlets of the past rarely had to reckon with, because of the difficulty associated with accessing archives. In the era of Google, a person’s past is now readily accessible years after small mistakes have come and gone.

Major regional newsrooms—beginning with Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer and their Right to be Forgotten project and taken up since by others like The Salt Lake Tribune and the Boston Globe—now offer frameworks where people can request that their name and picture be removed in old crime stories—under certain conditions.

RELATED: In keeping with evolving industry trends and in part modeled after policies of the newsrooms just named, WISC-TV/Channel 3000 will now consider removing the names and pictures in old crime stories under this policy, published alongside this story. To apply, click here.

“I would argue it’s taken [newsrooms] far too long,” Culver said. “For quite some time, any request to unpublish something were met with, sort of, disdain in some newsrooms. ‘Well, this is the way we’ve always done it, this is the way we’re going to continue to do it.’”

But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests over racial inequity across the country, more newsrooms have begun rethinking their approach to crime reporting and how people are named.

“I think one of the things that we’re reflecting on now in journalism is that for far too long, we had a very serious deference to authority: that if police said something had happened, we tended to believe that it happened, and we would report it as such,” Culver said.

In George Floyd’s case, the first press release that came from the Minneapolis Police Department said he had died during a medical incident. In 2021, former MPD police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, after kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.

“If we hadn’t had citizens who had video of the situation, who knows where we would have been,” Culver noted. “We just have to constantly think in journalism how best to serve the public interests.”

Lifelong impacts

People don’t care too much when Wisniewski tells them about his criminal drug past. It’s when they google him and see a much different, much more stigmatized headline that things like housing offers start falling through, he said.

Recently, he had nearly finalized a housing arrangement with a new roommate who he’d briefed fully on the drug crimes in his past. Everything was fine until the new roommate googled Wisniewski’s name.

“He sees the articles,” he said. “The next day is like, ‘Here, I need to give you your money back. I need you to leave. I can’t have you living here.’”

For the most part, Wisniewski says he’s at peace with his past and the headlines that remain. He loves his job at Just Dane’s bakery, where he works with others to train them on important life skills and, in his words, “walk with them” as they seek a better future after criminal pasts.

People who know him know better, he said. He’s honest about the crimes he committed, and he does his best to explain to those who care about the ones he didn’t.

“I did stuff wrong. But I think everything leads to a good place and everything happens for a reason,” he said. “If I hadn’t done those things, I wouldn’t have ended up [at Just Bakery] and been able to change other people’s lives.”


Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.

*Editorial note: While a discussion about prostitution and its stigma is outside the scope of this report, it is worth noting that a 2019 DOJ survey found many law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin do not distinguish between human trafficking and prostitution.

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