Of all the requests she’s received to erase information contained in online articles, Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star, says one in particular stands out.
The reason? It came from a fellow journalist, on behalf of a friend who wanted some embarrassing and outdated information scrubbed from the Star’s Web site. English couldn’t believe a journalist would endorse that kind of request.
“That’s when I knew that I was on top of something in terms of the industry not having consistency [when it comes to this issue],” English says.
As public editor, English deals with a flood of requests from people who want the paper to update or eliminate older articles from its Web site. The Star is far from alone in this regard. Earlier this year, I detailed the process used by The New York Times to handle these similar requests. (In short, the paper will sometimes append corrections to older articles, especially when a person was charged with a felony and the paper failed to report their acquittal or the charges being dropped.)
Over the past year, the “unpublishing” issue became a challenge for news organizations of all sizes. Now, thanks to research by English that was funded by the Associated Press Managing Editors, we have a sense of how newspapers all over the United States are dealing with this issue.
English produced a detailed report, “The Long Tail of News: To Unpublish or not to Unpublish,” that includes results from a survey completed by over 100 newspaper editors. Her report also suggests appropriate policies and procedures—an important step, given that the survey makes it clear there’s no defined standard or policy among journalists.
“We’re not there,” English says. “I presented my findings to the APME at a conference in St. Louis and it was clear from the discussion that we’re are all over the map.”
As news organizations build large online archives, and as these archives appear in search engine results, the issue of correcting and updating older articles is only going to become more important, not to mention time consuming. You used to be able to publish a story and move on, rarely thinking of it again. Not anymore. News organizations are responsible for maintaining and updating everything on our Web sites. A story doesn’t end or resolve when it’s published online. It begins, and we’re responsible for it.
This is a huge challenge, especially for resource-strapped newsrooms. The vast majority of news organizations are not equipped to maintain their online archives. This makes the onslaught of reader requests for archival changes all the more difficult to handle.
One organization, GateHouse Media, is attempting to handle this problem by introducing “sunset clauses” for some of its reporting. English’s report notes that this means “police blotter reports are programmed when published to ‘fall off’ the news organizations’ Websites six months after initial publication.”
If this experiment works for GateHouse, we could end up seeing other organizations adopt a form of planned obsolescence for some of their content. Of course, when English presented this approach to other editors, one person from the Chicago Sun-Times objected to the idea, saying that “this is part of somebody’s history and we should know these things about people.” So, the debate continues.
One practice that simply isn’t an option for responsible journalists is scrubbing—removing incorrect or outdated information from an online article without adding a correction, editor’s note, or some similar disclosure for readers. English says her survey found that most editors realize that scrubbing is unethical.
“I think we’ve come a long way in the last couple of years in recognizing that scrubbing is wrong, but it still happens,” she says. “What I still see falling through the cracks is when a reporter goes to an online editor saying, ‘Can you change this?’”
She says the consensus of her report is that you need to inform readers if you’re going to remove or unpublish information from a specific article. One section of her report spells it out very clearly:
Though we should resist unpublishing, we have a journalistic responsibility to ensure the ongoing accuracy of content published online. In some cases, further reporting may be necessary to verify new information, 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 with our readers demands that we indicate that an article has been edited to correct or update.
Margaret Holt, the senior editor of standards at the Chicago Tribune, is quoted in the report as saying that, “Our starting point is that we don’t unpublish but we are open to considering new information and adding that online.”