July 19, 2010

Most news organizations are reluctant to remove content from their Web sites. They want to preserve the integrity of the archive, and worry that if they unpublish a story based on one request they’ll have to do so for everyone who makes these requests.

Some news organizations have experimented with alternatives to unpublishing that have allow them to both maintain the public record and, when appropriate, appease the person who wants the record erased.

To better understand this issue, it helps to look at some of the reasons people make unpublishing requests:

  • Sources believe that a story was unfair or inaccurate.
  • Those who have been acquitted, or whose charges were dropped, want crime stories about them to be removed.
  • Source remorse: A source regrets saying something and wants his or her name removed from a story — or for the story to removed altogether.
  • Writer remorse: A writer is embarrassed by something he or she wrote. This happened recently at the University of Missouri’s student newspaper, The Maneater. Editor-in-chief Zach Toombs said by phone that a former sex columnist for the paper asked that her columns be removed because she was applying for law school and was afraid they’d taint her professional image. (Toombs said they were not removed.)

Here are five ways to handle these requests.

Unpublish a story

Kathy English, public editor of The Toronto Star, surveyed 110 newspapers last year and found that 78.2 percent answered yes to the question: “Should news organizations ever unpublish online articles?” Despite the high percentage, though, English said the majority of them find alternatives to unpublishing.

I found this to be true, too. Journalists at seven of the eight news organizations I talked to, including ESPN, NPR and The New York Times, said they look at unpublishing as a last resort.

The exception was The Capital, a daily paper in Annapolis, Md., that removed all of the columns a freelancer wrote for the paper after finding out that information in one of the columns had been plagiarized. The column, which was about specialty cheeses, ran every other week for about a year.

“We terminated her column and decided to take all of the columns off the website because if she had done that once, there was a possibility that she had done it before, and we did not want to take that chance,” said Loretta Haring, managing editor of the Capital Gazette. The paper ran a note in the food section indicating that the column had ended.

The Capital also unpublished a building permit that contained the address and name of a local woman who was being stalked.

“I thought there was a bona fide threat to the welfare of someone, and it’s more important for me to protect their life than to insist on the integrity of a story,” said Tom Marquardt, editor and publisher of The Capital, which doesn’t have a policy for handling unpublishing requests. “Even if we had a policy, there would have to be exceptions for instances like this.”

English said The Toronto Star rarely unpublishes stories but could make an exception if doing so meant minimizing harm to someone.

“If someone’s life is in danger, we can make a pretty good case for making a story go away,” English said in a phone interview. She pointed out that one of the problems with unpublishing is that even if a news organization removes a story from its website, there’s no guarantee that another site hasn’t picked up the story and quoted from it. 

Write an addendum

The New York Times gets a couple of unpublishing requests per week, many of which involve stories published years ago, said Philip Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards.

“It is a shocking thing for people to realize that some 300-word story buried inside The New York Times 15 years ago can now appear instantly on your computer screen,” Corbett said by phone. “We understand that this can cause problems they never anticipated, but we don’t think it’s in the interest of the reader or the public to alter or to expunge or to erase that record.”

On rare occasions, the Times will add an addendum to crime stories if the subject contacts the Times to say he or she was acquitted, or that charges were dropped. The Times only does this for stories involving major crimes, and it requires that the person involved supply copies of related legal documents as proof.

The Times wrote an addendum, for instance, after a man who was charged with raping a woman in 1996 contacted the paper 12 years later to say the charges had been dropped.

Corbett acknowledged that, within reason, this approach can be a good alternative to unpublishing. “A lot of this is just a question of resources,” he said. “If somebody claims that we ran a 15-year-old article and there was some subsequent development that we didn’t report on, we could spend all of our reporters’ time doing follow-ups to 15-year-old stories. It’s not what we’re in the business of doing.”

Write a follow-up story

When an addendum doesn’t seem like enough, some news orgs opt to write a follow-up story with a link to the original piece.

“In the end, I’m not all that excited about the value of the editor’s note,” said News & Record Editor John Robinson by e-mail. “I understand that it will show up on a Google search and that’s a good thing. But for our readers, we should publish something separate that gets an equal amount (or an appropriate amount) of attention. It seems to be the fairest thing to do.”

Because of the time and resources that follow-ups require, they’re not always a favored option. But they allow for more context and background than an addendum does.

“Publishing a follow-up that puts the correct information on the record and links to the previous article is also a means of ensuring ongoing accuracy,” English said. “I don’t really know how much this is being done yet. My sense from the survey is that newsrooms are just beginning to figure out the various ways of ensuring that content that lives online remains accurate.”

Take out source’s name, remove story from Google’s cache

Three years after the Coastsider — a community news site in San Mateo County, Calif. — ran a brief about a missing man who was seen in Big Sur, the man asked that the story be taken down. Instead of unpublishing it, Coastsider Editor and Publisher Barry Parr removed the man’s name and requested that the story be removed from Google’s cache. (To minimize the chances of the story being re-indexed, Parr asked us not to link to it.)

The story still appears on the Coastider’s site but says “[name obscured]” in place of where the man’s name once appeared. Parr said that normally, he wouldn’t have removed a person’s name, but decided to do so for a few different reasons:

  • The brief was not part of the record of the paper’s community, as the man hadn’t gone missing in the site’s coverage area.
  • The brief was primarily a quote from another media source and not something that the Coastsider had reported.
  • There was no allegation of wrongdoing on the subject’s part.
  • The man had been “rational” and “respectful” when making his request, and he made a good case that it was tough to go on with his life because this personal matter was still permanently attached to his name.

“If any one of these elements had been different,” Parr said, “I doubt I would have obscured the story.”

Run a correction

When sources see that information in a story is wrong, they sometimes ask for the entire story to be unpublished. News organizations will typically correct the story, though, rather than going to the extreme of unpublishing it.

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Corrections give news sites an opportunity to be transparent about their mistakes, while unpublishing makes it easier to cover them up. The New York Times’ Corbett said that, in some ways, unpublishing a story is like correcting information in a story without issuing a correction.

“We do make mistakes and it’s really important that we not just fix what was wrong but make it clear to readers that we made a mistake,” he said. “This is the reason why we wouldn’t go in and just make something go away or unpublish something. We tell the reader what the right information is rather than making the wrong information or the story disappear. “

Corbett thinks unpublishing requests could eventually become less common as people grow accustomed to knowing that most news stories inevitably end up online.

“My hope,” he said, “is that as time goes on and people grow up knowing how the Web works and how Google works, they’re going to be more aware that this information is out there.”

How does your news organization handle requests to unpublish content?

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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