"Minimize awareness"? Obviously we don't try to do that, nor would we ever want to, or even think that way.
The reason there was a penalty—the mildest possible—was procedural. For several months after the Snowden news broke, HN's front page was overrun with copycat stories that were simply follow-ups and added no new information. Many users complained about this, and they were right. So we applied the best tool we had available, with the intention of taking it off when the flood died down, and so we eventually did.
I don't see how a blanket penalty works better than manually removing the small number of genuinely pointless articles.
It's true that during the initial period there were major revelations coming out every few days. But I was talking about later.
7. Hacking Oklahoma State University's Student ID (snelling.io)
94 points by samsnelling 5 hours ago
9. Introduction to Facebook's Flux architecture (ryanclark.me)
204 points by wayfarer2s 8 hours ago
11. Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald: AUAA (reddit.com)
376 points by ahamdy 4 hours ago
The higher up on Hacker News an article is, the more awareness will typically be allocated to the story. If a story drops from the front page, significantly less attention will be allocated to it.
While the penalties might not have been intended to minimize awareness of these stories in the greater scheme of things, they were certainly meant to minimize awareness of the stories on Hacker News.
If there is an effect of 'minimizing awareness' at work, I don't think the effect is very large.
You're assuming most HNers a) move past the first page b) search for submissions, or c) frequent /newcomments. My counter-assumption would be that is not true for a majority of users.