When should editors “unpublish” online news reports?

Kathy EnglishAs public editor of the Toronto Star, Kathy English is faced with requests to remove published content from the newspaper’s  website.  What’s fair to readers? What’s fair to those reported on? English examines how news orgs respond to such requests.

Sometimes those who are the subjects of news reports want that news to disappear.

Although print news has long lived on in databases and archives, readers seem to regard today’s online archived news reports as more easily altered than print content.  

As public editor of Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper, I am increasingly faced with requests to remove published content from the Star‘s website.  

The reasons for these requests to “unpublish” – a word media organizations have coined to describe public requests to remove content from news websites — are varied. Some believe the report is inaccurate or unfair. Some experience what might be called “source remorse” and rethink what they want the public to know about them. Others may be embarrassed by what is written about them; they decide they don’t want the public to know their marital status, or what they paid for their home.

In many cases, these unpublishing requests emerge many months, even years, after original publication when those named in the news understand that through Google and other search engines, the news article in which they are named is easily accessible to the general public.

For journalists and news organizations, requests to unpublish raise questions about accuracy and fairness, as well as trust and credibility with our readers and the communities we serve.

What’s fair to readers? What’s fair to those we report on? How do news organizations respond to such requests in a manner consistent with journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability and transparency? Who decides if and when to make news disappear from the Internet?

Over the past few months, I have examined these questions for a research paper commissioned by the Associated Press Managing Editors Online Credibility Project, supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

My paper, “The longtail of news: To unpublish or not to unpublish” examines how news organizations throughout North America are responding to requests to unpublish news content. Information was gathered in several ways, most notably through a North American-wide survey to which 110 news organizations responded.

I also visited three news organizations of varying sizes in the Chicago area to learn how each handles an increasing number of unpublishing requests. As well, I queried news ombudsmen through the Organization of News Ombudsman (of which I am a board member) and Canadian editors through the Canadian Newspaper Association. I also consulted with media lawyers to more fully understand legal prerogatives to unpublish. However, the paper mainly reflects the views and practices of the news industry. It does not provide a full examination of the legal landscape.

Overall, I learned that there is a strong reluctance by journalists to remove published content from websites. As one editor said, “Unpublishing is a word that doesn’t accurately reflect what people are asking. They’re asking us to censor or rewrite history.”

Most expressed the general view that published content online is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our readers. Although about half of the industry leaders surveyed have evolved policies and practices for handling unpublishing requests (including the Star), no overall industry best practices have yet emerged.

Not surprisingly, unpublishing requests occur increasingly in connection to reports of criminal charges from the daily police blotter. Given that reports of charges remain online, 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.

My research paper includes a selection of unpublishing requests various North American editors have faced and provides recommendations for industry “best practices.” It also includes ten questions news organizations can ask themselves in considering these requests. It also looks at how some news organizations are handling police blotter news in the light of online realities.

Clearly, however, more discussion of these questions is called for.  I welcome your views as I continue to research this issue in preparation for my Poynter Institute webinar, “Creating fairness guidelines for ‘unpublishing'” scheduled for next May.

Click here to read the full-text of “The longtail of news.”

Kathy English is public editor at the
Toronto Star. She began her journalism career at the Brantford Expositor in 1976 and was a Star reporter and feature writer from 1983-1989. She has reported and edited for the Hamilton Spectator, London Free Press, Toronto Sun, and The Globe and Mail. She taught newspaper journalism at Ryerson School of Journalism for 10 years. After departing from Ryerson’s journalism faculty, she launched websites for two Canadian media companies, SunMedia and Transcontinental Media. Kathy served on the board of the National Newspaper Awards for 5 years.