Ethics Week: How to Solve a Problem like Unpublishing

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

As Sylvia Stead of the Globe and Mail declared this week, “We are not in the unpublishing business.” But that issue has become ethically – and legally – tricky in the eternal nightlife of the internet, and one that news organizations would do well to consider.

Unpublishing often gets paired with the issue of online corrections: in an era where a news story can be altered almost as quickly as it can be published, to what extent do we acknowledge the mistakes we make? Some news organizations handle it on a case-by-case basis: fixing mistakes as soon as they come up, and deciding later whether to put an explanatory note on the story depending on the severity of the mistake. A misspelled street name might not require a note stating that a previous version of the story had it wrong, while misattributing a quote might require such a note to avoid confusing the reader.

But unpublishing – actually removing a story from the online archives – is a much bigger deal, and one that seems to have little consensus.

Stead wrote that she’s had more than a dozen requests this year to remove information from the Globe and Mail for reasons varying from “embarrassing” to unflattering photos to criminal convictions. In one case, she said, a woman wanted a positive article about herself and her ex-husband removed because she didn’t want to be reminded of a bad marriage.

Kathy English of the Toronto Star told the Associated Press Media Editors that content archived by newspapers is easily accessible to the entire world and lives “virtually forever.” She conducted an online journalism credibility project, surveying policies by more than 100 North American news organizations and visiting or interviewing ombudsmen and other news organizations.

“There is an overall strong reluctance to remove published content from news web sites,” English said. “Although about half of the industry leaders surveyed have evolved policies and practices for handling unpublishing requests, no overall industry best practices have yet emerged.”

Unpublishing requests might come from the journalist, who may be embarrassed by a mistake or uncomfortable with having the subject matter attached to his name. It might come from a source who is embarrassed by the story: in a 2010 piece published by Poynter, the subject of a story asked that the story be taken down from a community news site. Publisher Barry Parr declined to do so, but instead removed the man’s name and requested that the story be removed from Google’s cache. He told Poynter that he did so because the story was essentially a brief quoting another media source, there was no wrongdoing on the part of the subject, and the subject had been “rational and respectful” in asking.

But is simply being embarrassed by a story cause enough to remove it? In many cases, news outlets decide it might be better to leave an “embarrassing” story up with an explanatory note indicating the eventual outcome.

Then comes the practical upshot: every day stories evolve, with new developments that change our perspective and understanding of a story’s meaning. How practical is it to go back and mark every previous story with the latest updates on the off chance someone is reading the archive and doesn’t know how it turned out?

There is a tendency in these days of instant electronic news to see online posts as something fleeting and malleable. It is published one moment and can be unpublished the next. Does it matter? Did anyone see it? How much of an impact did it make, when it is not printed on paper?

The classic example is a case of a person accused of a crime and later found not guilty or otherwise cleared of wrongdoing. Should that person have the story hanging around her Google results for the rest of her life?

On the other hand, making the story disappear from our archives or even from Google doesn’t make it disapper entirely. The internet is pretty much forever, and just because a newspaper removes a story from its archive doesn’t mean that there is no separate web archive or screen capture somewhere out there in the vastness of the ‘net.

“It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don’t like,” said Daily Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke in a 2014 article in the Globe and Mail on a EU court’s ruling that Google must comply with requests to remove articles from its search results.

Here’s the crux of it: unpublishing doesn’t make a story unhappen. Just ask Rolling Stone: unpublishing its famously flawed “Rape on Campus” story certainly didn’t make it disappear from the nation’s memory.

And in some cases, the unpublishing option creates a bigger stir. BuzzFeed discovered that last year when it removed an opinion piece by Arabelle Sicardi criticizing Dove’s new beauty campaign. At first the article was removed due to a “tone not consistent with BuzzFeed.” But then it was later republished, and editor Ben Smith declared on Twitter, “I blew it.” As The Atlantic later reported, BuzzFeed has a written standard that editorial posts should not be deleted because of content or because a stakeholder requested it.

Stead reports that now there are “reputation specialists,” attempting to scrub the internet for clients trying to hide past misdeeds. And that’s not just a U.K. thing: witness the University of California-Davis, which has paid a public relations firm at least $175,000 to try to erase the image of a campus police officer spraying seated student protesters with pepper spray in 2011. The firm tried to remove records of the incident from Google search results, as well as counteract criticism of the administration’s response.

However, as multiple news outlets have reported: It’s ultimately useless. The Sacramento Bee found that no matter how much money the UC-Davis paid, the story was everywhere.

However any given news organization decides to handle unpublishing, it’s vitally important that a solid policy be developed and followed, making sure that editors and writers alike are trained in its standards. As English discovered, there is a tendency to fly through the internet by the seat of our pants and treat every ethical question as a case-by-case issue. But it’s those last-minute, gut-reaction decisions that can sometimes cause us to overreact and lose perspective, making decisions that we may regret, or even make the situation worse.

The bigger lesson to take from this, for both the subjects of stories and those who write them: Whether in print or online, what we put out on the internet usually can’t be taken back, for better or for worse. Unpublishing doesn’t make it go away, because the internet is forever. And that is a reminder to us to be cautious about what we write, because our mistakes will follow us as well.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

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