Panel report by Kathy English (Chair), Tim Currie, Rod Link

Approved by the Full Committee on October 27, 2010

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the unpublishing panel to propose guidelines for correcting online content and handling public requests to “unpublish” — a word media organizations have coined to describe requests to remove published digital content from websites and online archives.

To study this issue, the panel relied heavily on a research paper English completed last year for the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Online Credibility Project, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. That research “The longtail of news: To unpublish or not to unpublish” was based primarily on a survey of 110 North American news organizations to determine how the news industry is handling requests to unpublish digital content.

The issue

Life in the age of Google means that just about everything published by news organizations is now just a few clicks away from anyone with a computer. And news published online, seemingly, never dies.

Sometimes those who are the subjects of news reports want that news to disappear. Because it is technically possible to easily “unpublish” digital content in a way that was never possible in print, increasingly, media organizations are faced with requests from our audiences and those we have reported on to remove online content.

The reasons for these requests to unpublish are varied. Some contend the report is inaccurate, unfair or outdated. Some exhibit what might be called “source remorse” and rethink what they have revealed to journalists. Others cite privacy concerns and want to erase any public reports about them from online search results.

Not surprisingly, many unpublishing requests relate to published reports of criminal charges. The reality that many news organizations do not routinely follow-up on the outcome of these charges and report on acquittals or dropped charges is an issue of increasing concern for news organizations and those they report on given the permanence and easy accessibility of online content.

In many cases, unpublishing requests emerge many months, even years, after original publication when individuals named in the news understand that through Google and other search engines, that news about them is easily accessible to the general public. Perhaps the best way to understand this issue is to consider some of the requests to unpublish digital content that have been considered over the past year by various North American new organizations, including the Toronto Star.

  • A law student is charged in connection with a prank about a bomb threat in a public place. All charges against the law student are dropped well before the case goes to trial. His lawyer says he was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A year later, the student requests that reports of the charges be removed from the online archive. He is job hunting and concerned that because searches of his name in Google pull up those articles he will be stigmatized.
  • A heroin addict, likely acting with impaired judgment, gives a reporter information about herself that may not be reliable. Years afterward, she has beaten her addiction, obtained an education and is seeking work as a paralegal. She asks to have the article removed to prevent it from interfering with her job search and future.
  • A real estate developer claims that a 6-month-old story about a lawsuit contained unfair/inaccurate claims and prospective clients are Googling him and seeing the accusations in the article. The suit remains active and the plaintiff has not withdrawn the claims.
  • A restaurant owner complains that a Google search turned up a years-old unfavourable review while failing to turn up a more recent positive review. He demands, under threat of lawsuit, that the earlier review be unpublished.
  • A 20-something woman discusses her divorce in a lifestyle feature. More than a year later, she seeks to have the article unpublished because she is embarrassed by what she said.
  • A man emails to suggest a news story about the ease with which he sold his home in a challenging market. The published article includes the price of his old and new home and includes a photo of the man and his family in the new home (which they willingly agreed to). The man is enraged that information about the price he paid for his new house is included and wants the online article and photo removed. He says his wife is embarrassed and does not want the children’s photo online.

Media response to this issue

For the media, requests to unpublish raise questions about accuracy and fairness, as well as trust and credibility with our readers and the communities we serve. Google says this is our problem. Those who approach the search engine to have content removed from search results are told that the information must be changed on the news site where it was published. “In order for information in Google’s results to change, the information must first change on the site where it appears, and this is a change that Google is unable to make for you,” says Google’s online Webmaster Central:

“If you contact the webmaster, he or she has a few options. He or she can remove the concerning information, take the page down from the web entirely, or block Google from including the page in Google’s index.”

This puts this issue squarely in the hands of news organizations.

Digital technology makes it relatively simple to alter or remove digital content. But, should news organizations make news and information disappear? What’s fair to our audiences? What’s fair to those we report on?

How do media organizations respond to such requests in a manner consistent with our journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability and transparency? Who decides if and when to make news disappear from the Internet?

These questions were examined in a 2009 report for the Associated Press Managing Editors Online Credibility Project. That report found little industry consensus on how to handle unpublishing requests. A survey of 110 North American news organizations found that 50.8 per cent of newsrooms surveyed had no policy for dealing with this issue and are handling such requests on an adhoc basis. Most agreed this is an increasingly urgent issue and they expect public requests to unpublish digital content will increase.

But, the survey found strong reluctance within news organizations to remove published digital content. Most editors believe that significant legal concerns should be the main reason for unpublishing content. A majority also think that serious threats to an individual’s personal safety by ongoing publication of news and information concerning that individual should also be given serious consideration.

Not one of the 110 editors surveyed would remove content because of source remorse. These editors expressed the strong belief that published digital content is a matter of public record and is part of our transparency contract with our audiences — just as our newspapers and newscasts have always been. Any request to unpublish must be weighed against this overriding value. Removing published content — in effect, making news disappear — diminishes transparency and trust with our audiences.

As one newspaper editor said: “Unpublishing is a word that doesn’t accurately reflect what people are asking. They’re asking us to censor or rewrite history.”

Said another: “The fact is folks are going to have to adjust to the on-the-web-forever world. We cannot unring the bell.”

The survey indicates that the majority of editors believe the ongoing accuracy of digital content is the responsibility of news organizations. The consensus here is that once something is published, the ethical option is to leave it as it is — so long as it is accurate.

Digital content that is found to be inaccurate should be corrected and/or amended in a transparent manner as soon as an inaccuracy is verified. Here’s what Craig Whitney, standards editor of the New York Times said in the APME survey: “We do not unpublish, but if there was an error or later information we did not publish that casts a different light on an archived article, we append a correction or an addendum to it.”

The survey also indicated that most editors think no one individual within a news organization should act as in-house “censor” and determine when digital content should be unpublished. The rare decision to remove digital content should be done through a process of consultation at the highest levels of the news organization. In many cases, this will include legal counsel.

Recommended best practices

Here are this ethics panel’s recommended best practices for handling requests to unpublish digital content:

  1. We are in the publishing business and generally should not unpublish: Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished. News organizations do not rewrite history or make news disappear.
  2. Ongoing accuracy is our responsibility: Though we should resist unpublishing, we have a journalistic responsibility to ensure the ongoing accuracy of all published content and publish correctives and updated articles as soon as we verify errors and/or new information. In some cases, further reporting may be necessary to verify new information to append to online content, especially in cases involving charges against individuals named in the news. If we err, or if new relevant facts emerge, we should correct and update online articles. Transparency demands that we indicate to audiences that an article has been altered.
  3. Put a clear policy in place: News organizations and audiences will be best served by creating an “unpublishing” policy that stipulates the above principles and makes clear that while the online archive is more accessible to the public and can be altered easier than print content, it is no different from the newspaper archives that have always existed. The policy should be transparent and applied consistently.
  4. Unpublish for the right reasons: There may be some rare circumstances involving egregious error or violation of journalistic ethics where it is deemed necessary to remove content from the published archive. In most cases, this would be for legal reasons, including defamatory material, material that is in contravention of a publication ban or other legal restrictions. Ideally, legal counsel should be consulted in these instances and first consideration should be whether the material can be corrected/altered in a transparent manner. In the rare cases when an article is removed completely from the website, transparency requires that note should be added to the URL to acknowledge that the article has been removed.
  5. It’s fair to be human: Serious consideration to an unpublishing request should be given when someone’s life may be endangered by ongoing publication of information. Fairness to those named in the news means that there may also be some rare cases where we might unpublish content becomes it is judged to be the humane thing to do in the circumstances. Any decision to remove content deemed to be harmful to an individual must be weighed against the public’s right to know, the historical record, and the reality that the article may be cached in search engines and will likely not disappear entirely from the Internet.
  6. Source remorse is not a right reason to unpublish: We should not remove published information because sources change their minds about what they told a journalist, or decide, following publication, that they do not want news about them accessed through a search engine. If the information was gathered fairly and reported accurately, it is part of the public record and should not be altered.
  7. Unpublish by consensus: No one individual within a news organization should act as a censor and decide when to remove published content. These decisions should be made by consensus of several high-level editors.
  8. Explain your unpublishing policy: Those who seek to have published content removed may not understand the journalistic reasons to resist unpublishing. Many see the online article as an easily altered version of the story. We should make great effort to explain our unpublishing policy and help those who seek to have published material removed understand that this is an issue of integrity and credibility and reflects our sense of responsibility to our audiences, our community and the historical record.
  9. Help sources understand the implications of digital publishing: Many who seek to have articles unpublished express surprise that the article was published online and remains available online and accessible through Google and other search engines. Print and broadcast journalists should inform sources of the implications of multi-platform publishing.

Consider the implications of publishing before publication: The permanence and easy accessibility of digital journalism calls for more consideration of the implications of publication before publishing. This is especially important in relation to the reporting of criminal charges and naming of those charged. Should such information be published if the news organization does not intend to follow up on reporting the outcome of those charges?


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