Panel report by
Kathy English (Chair), Tim Currie, Rod Link
Approved by the Full Committee on October 27, 2010
The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the unpublishing panel to propose guidelines for correcting online content and handling public requests to “unpublish” — a word media organizations have coined to describe requests to remove published digital content from websites and online archives.
To study this issue, the panel relied heavily on a research paper English completed last year for the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Online Credibility Project, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. That research “The longtail of news: To unpublish or not to unpublish” was based primarily on a survey of 110 North American news organizations to determine how the news industry is handling requests to unpublish digital content.
Life in the age of Google means that just about everything published by news organizations is now just a few clicks away from anyone with a computer. And news published online, seemingly, never dies.
Sometimes those who are the subjects of news reports want that news to disappear.
Because it is technically possible to easily “unpublish” digital content in a way that was never possible in print, increasingly, media organizations are faced with requests from our audiences and those we have reported on to remove online content.
The reasons for these requests to unpublish are varied. Some contend the report is inaccurate, unfair or outdated. Some exhibit what might be called “source remorse” and rethink what they have revealed to journalists. Others cite privacy concerns and want to erase any public reports about them from online search results.
Not surprisingly, many unpublishing requests relate to published reports of criminal charges. 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 given the permanence and easy accessibility of online content.
In many cases, unpublishing requests emerge many months, even years, after original publication when individuals named in the news understand that through Google and other search engines, that news about them is easily accessible to the general public.
Perhaps the best way to understand this issue is to consider some of the requests to unpublish digital content that have been considered over the past year by various North American new organizations, including the Toronto Star.
For the media, requests to unpublish raise questions about accuracy and fairness, as well as trust and credibility with our readers and the communities we serve.
Google says this is our problem. Those who approach the search engine to have content removed from search results are told that the information must be changed on the news site where it was published. “In order for information in Google’s results to change, the information must first change on the site where it appears, and this is a change that Google is unable to make for you,” says Google’s online Webmaster Central:
“If you contact the webmaster, he or she has a few options. He or she can remove the concerning information, take the page down from the web entirely, or block Google from including the page in Google’s index.”
This puts this issue squarely in the hands of news organizations.
Digital technology makes it relatively simple to alter or remove digital content. But, should news organizations make news and information disappear? What’s fair to our audiences? What’s fair to those we report on?
How do media organizations respond to such requests in a manner consistent with our journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability and transparency? Who decides if and when to make news disappear from the Internet?
These questions were examined in a 2009 report for the Associated Press Managing Editors Online Credibility Project. That report found little industry consensus on how to handle unpublishing requests. A survey of 110 North American news organizations found that 50.8 per cent of newsrooms surveyed had no policy for dealing with this issue and are handling such requests on an adhoc basis. Most agreed this is an increasingly urgent issue and they expect public requests to unpublish digital content will increase.
But, the survey found strong reluctance within news organizations to remove published digital content. Most editors believe that significant legal concerns should be the main reason for unpublishing content. A majority also think that serious threats to an individual’s personal safety by ongoing publication of news and information concerning that individual should also be given serious consideration.
Not one of the 110 editors surveyed would remove content because of source remorse.
These editors expressed the strong belief that published digital content is a matter of public record and is part of our transparency contract with our audiences — just as our newspapers and newscasts have always been. Any request to unpublish must be weighed against this overriding value. Removing published content — in effect, making news disappear — diminishes transparency and trust with our audiences.
As one newspaper editor 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 survey indicates that the majority of editors 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.
Digital content that is found to be inaccurate should be corrected and/or amended in a transparent manner as soon as an inaccuracy is verified. Here’s what Craig Whitney, standards editor of the New York Times said in the APME survey: “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 indicated that most editors think no one individual within a news organization should act as in-house “censor” and determine when digital content should be unpublished. The rare decision 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.
Here are this ethics panel’s recommended best practices for handling requests to unpublish digital content: