Journalist offered bribe to unpublish story

Toronto Star fashion journalist David Graham was recently offered a bribe to make a story disappear from the Star’s archives.

Public editor Kathy English writes about a Toronto Star first: while reporters are often offered swag, she’s never encountered a full-out bribe. She reports that a 26-year-old “web marketing consultant” offered Graham a $300 bribe (via a Facebook message) to unpublish a 2009 story about “a fashion faux pas involving a 30-something Toronto socialite”, whom English declines to name (but she offers enough facts that a casual Googler can discover the woman is Deena Pantalone, who was caught fudging the origin story of a red cocktail dress.)

English notes that “the reporter was stunned. Had he agreed to such an outrageous request, that would have been a serious breach of journalistic ethics and the Star’s policies, quite possibly a firing offence.”

Here’s the message in question:

“Currently my client is offering me $600 to remove the article through advanced SEO techniques, which is more than possible, however a faster route would be contacting you. So I’m asking if you are able to remove an article in question, and if so I would be willing to give you 50% of my payment as it would expedite my work greatly.”

English notes that “In an earlier note he sent to Graham’s Toronto Star email, webdude [English doesn’t name the person] identified the story in question and revealed that he was acting for a client who has ‘an issue with bad publicity regarding an article that you wrote speculating on a controversial matter over his daughter that brought his name into it. I’m wondering what you’d be willing to do to get this article either taken down or get (my client’s) name taken out of it.'”

The person was hired to perform “online reputation management.” He tells English that his job is basically “getting rid of” editorial content that people would rather see disappear. Requests from sources to unpublished online content isn’t new by any means: English receives them often. “The Star’s policy,” she writes, “is that we do not unpublished unless there are serious legal reasons for doing so.”

In November, The Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Advisory Committee published a paper that explored the ethics of unpublishing online content (written by English, the panel report Chair, as well as Tim Currie and Rod Link).  The most common request for online changes involves criminal charges “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.”

The paper quotes a newspaper editor who 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 paper notes that the majority of editors who responded to the survey 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. “

In addition, digital content found to be inaccurate should be immediately corrected in a transparent manner immediately. Craig Whitney, standards editor of the New York Times said in a 2009 survey for the Associated Press Managing Editors Online Credibility Project: “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 found that most editors think no one individual should act as in-house “censor” — rather, a decision (however rare) 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.”

English’s interview with the “young webdude” in question raised concern for her because he “doesn’t even seem to clearly understand the ethical principles here.” He told English that “I wasn’t trying to pay him off, I offered him an incentive. It’s the real world, money talks. Most of the time, people will look the other way.”