Ultimately, the dilemma is to balance the concerns of sources with English’s practical manpower concerns and the obligation a publication has to its audience.
“There’s a contract with the reader,” English said, to preserve coverage in most cases. Unless the concern of the source is an egregious legal one, or a matter of protecting a source’s physical safety, a publication will rarely, if ever, remove an article though, as English notes, “people often make a compelling case, and you feel so bad for them I get the human dimension of this.”
So does USC Journalism Professor Joe Saltzman.
He remembers a time in 2000 when he wished the USC undergraduate newspaper, the Daily Trojan, showed compassion to one of his former students, who came to the journalism school after a battle with drugs.
That student’s interview with the paper came “long before the Internet became such a pervasive part of our lives,” Saltzman explained. “If she had known about the Internet or about the possibility that any future employer, friend, relative or anyone else could find out all about her lurid past simply by googling and finding an old DT article, then she never would have been that candid with the DT reporter.” Editors, advisers and school faculty declined to remove the story.
Changes that could help news organizations avoid these situations would be to put thought and consideration into what is posted on the Internet prior to its posting, and to be willing to add updates as they are needed, especially the results of criminal charges. Updates are a technique used at outlets like the Huffington Post, according to Standards Editor Adam Rose.
“A criminal acquittal would be a good example of one we might put prominently,” Rose said. “In that case we may ask if they have supporting evidence, but we would also do our own vetting by checking with courts and law enforcement agencies.” The debate over how to handle criminal charges was also at the heart of the European Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship’s proposal earlier this year to create a “right to be forgotten” privacy law.
Adding an update to the top of a story is more transparent and fair, in many instances, than a completely new article, which might be overlooked in search results. If it doesn’t come up with the original story, it isn’t helpful.
Most unpublishing requests, however, will not warrant an update. That’s where another part of the solution—having a firm policy—is crucial for an editor dealing with something so delicate, which brings me back to our Canadian architect source.
In the end, we chose not to remove our article, because neither danger nor legal matters came into play. We came to that conclusion after talks with editors and professors, and research on policies across the news industry. Armed with a solid policy at our digital website, I’m confident editors are ready to deal with unpublishing requests in the future.