behind the news

Archival Research

New study finds there’s no clear standard for updating or maintaining online news archives
December 4, 2009

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 It came from a fellow journalist, on behalf of a friend who wanted some embarrassing and outdated information scrubbed from the Star’s Web site.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.

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“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.”

Greg Brock , who handles corrections for The New York Times, and English both agree with that approach: you don’t simply delete information from the archives. Rather, you offer updates and corrections when warranted.

But from there, the debate about when, how and which information to remove gets very tricky. For example, here’s a section of the poll results from English’s report:

Under what circumstances might a news organization agree to a public request to unpublish?

• The content is viewed as inaccurate or unfair 67%

• Inflammatory or defamatory language or comments 48.7%

• Source rethinks what they want wider audience to know about them 0.0%

• The article contains outdated information that while accurate could be damaging to the sourceʼs reputation in the community. 20.9%

• Concerns that the post contains private information 10.4%

• Content is not properly attributed or sourced 32.2%

• Content deals with a minor or other protected person 33.9%

• Concerns that a law enforcement investigation could be compromised 23.5%

• Other 39.1%

News organizations must strive to develop clear and effective policies for managing and updating their archives. This will enable them to deal quickly and fairly with any requests. Certainly, some of these requests will be a difficult call–as English says, she doesn’t want to be seen as the in-house censor–but othes will be surprisingly easy. For example, an editor at the Dayton Daily shared one request that prompted a no-brainer response.

“A woman accidentally uploaded a nude picture of herself when she submitted photos to an online gallery,” the editor told English. “She asked that we take it down and we did.”

Correction of the Week

“A headline on a U.S. News article Friday incorrectly implied that Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess has been accused of improprieties related to his program’s investigative projects, which have helped free wrongly imprisoned inmates. In fact, a filing by Illinois prosecutors contained allegations that his students had paid two informants. The students deny the claims.” — The Wall Street Journal

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.