Unpublishing Requests Are on the Rise

As more content shifts from print to web, journalists are seeing rising requests from sources to remove stories

I recently encountered a sticky conundrum as editor of a student-run digital news website at the University of Southern California.

A woman, the centerpiece of a story on the continued plight of the architecture industry in California three years after the recession, contacted one of my reporters in a panic. The source was a Canadian citizen, and it became too expensive a few years ago for her California employer to sponsor her work visa. She was laid off. She took the only job she could find in Vancouver—at a 40 percent salary cut.

Now, times are better. Our source wants to work stateside again in an architecture firm and is setting up interviews with potential employers. But there’s one big problem: when potential employers google her name to do a background check, they notice this old article, and her visa troubles wave a red flag. Would they have to sponsor her too, and at what cost? Her complaints in the story about having to take a job in Vancouver reek of sour grapes. She grouses about working for her old corporate company. And she admits to having accepted the steep pay cut in Canada, which could now hurt in salary negotiations.

This article, she said, might be keeping her from getting a job, and she wants it removed.

That was when I realized our newsroom has no policy on what the industry has termed “unpublishing”—the removal of online news articles. And I am not alone, says Kathy English, public policy editor at the Toronto Star.

“I think news organizations are moving toward figuring it all out,” English said. “Even just this week I had four requests (to unpublish).”

She wrote a report [pdf] on the issue in 2009, which found that about half of newsrooms polled lacked an unpublishing policy.

“Public requests to unpublish are becoming increasingly frequent and are expected to increase,” English wrote in her report, after polling more than 100 editors across North America.

Three years later, the news industry is still catching up as unpublishing requests escalate, said English, and journalistic coverage, often called the “first draft of history,” migrates from paper to screen.

“There is something different about online content, because it lasts forever and is easily accessible,” English said. “It’s not the same as newspapers in trash bins.”

Though most editors agreed, according to English’s report, that there are some cases that justify deleting information—like inaccuracies or legal concerns—few editors in America would remove our architecture story. Across the board, editors refuse to redact a story because a source regrets something he or she said.

But is that fair to sources? Today, a print past isn’t hidden in newspaper archives or on microfilm. Even old content is just a click away. Google takes a snapshot of each page it examines and stores it as a cache. Pages that were removed can still come up in searches. Beyond Google, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has archived more than 150 billion web pages from 1996 to now.

As editors hold firm, the web creates more and more of these “digital tattoos” that can never go away and are much more visible than in previous journalistic eras. Even if a news organization does decide to remove or alter an article, it’s no guarantee the original content doesn’t still live somewhere on the Internet.

Recently, English said, the Toronto Star staff decided it needed to take a name out of a piece for legal reasons.

“Working with our webmasters, it took about three days to figure out how to do that with Google, because it was in the abstract,” English said. “It was a really hard thing to do. And that made me also realize we can’t say yes to all these things because we don’t have the manpower.”

Ultimately, the dilemma is to balance the concerns of sources with English’s practical manpower concerns and the obligation a publication has to its audience.

“There’s a contract with the reader,” English said, to preserve coverage in most cases. Unless the concern of the source is an egregious legal one, or a matter of protecting a source’s physical safety, a publication will rarely, if ever, remove an article though, as English notes, “people often make a compelling case, and you feel so bad for them … I get the human dimension of this.”

So does USC Journalism Professor Joe Saltzman.

He remembers a time in 2000 when he wished the USC undergraduate newspaper, the Daily Trojan, showed compassion to one of his former students, who came to the journalism school after a battle with drugs.

That student’s interview with the paper came “long before the Internet became such a pervasive part of our lives,” Saltzman explained. “If she had known about the Internet or about the possibility that any future employer, friend, relative or anyone else could find out all about her lurid past simply by googling and finding an old DT article, then she never would have been that candid with the DT reporter.” Editors, advisers and school faculty declined to remove the story.

Changes that could help news organizations avoid these situations would be to put thought and consideration into what is posted on the Internet prior to its posting, and to be willing to add updates as they are needed, especially the results of criminal charges. Updates are a technique used at outlets like the Huffington Post, according to Standards Editor Adam Rose.

“A criminal acquittal would be a good example of one we might put prominently,” Rose said. “In that case we may ask if they have supporting evidence, but we would also do our own vetting by checking with courts and law enforcement agencies.” The debate over how to handle criminal charges was also at the heart of the European Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship’s proposal earlier this year to create a “right to be forgotten” privacy law.

Adding an update to the top of a story is more transparent and fair, in many instances, than a completely new article, which might be overlooked in search results. If it doesn’t come up with the original story, it isn’t helpful.

Most unpublishing requests, however, will not warrant an update. That’s where another part of the solution—having a firm policy—is crucial for an editor dealing with something so delicate, which brings me back to our Canadian architect source.

In the end, we chose not to remove our article, because neither danger nor legal matters came into play. We came to that conclusion after talks with editors and professors, and research on policies across the news industry. Armed with a solid policy at our digital website, I’m confident editors are ready to deal with unpublishing requests in the future.

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Dan Watson is the editor in chief of Neon Tommy. Tags: