Online Editing: to Update? to Edit? to Unpublish? to do Nothing?

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Kathy English is the Toronto Star's public editor.

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English researched the practice of editing online news and unpublishing in a 21-page report,  “The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or Not to Unpublish.” English explains the issue at hand:

As public editor of the Toronto Star, rarely a month goes by that I don’t talk to someone who wants an article in which they are named removed from the Website of Canada’s largest newspaper. For the most part, all public requests to unpublish are handled by my office, often in consultation with the Star’s legal counsel. In 2008, the Star instituted an unpublishing policy to guide us in these requests. The policy says that we generally do not unpublish unless there are legal reasons to do so. We regard published content as a matter of public record whether it is published on newsprint or online.

This policy…is based on the journalistic value of transparency – to erase the record of what has been published would diminish transparency and credibility with readers…Those who seek to have news content about themselves removed from are rarely satisfied by my explanation of the Star’s policy. Some of the individuals who approach the Star make compelling, persistent personal appeals for unpublishing information about them. Most often, these individuals don’t understand a newspaper’s greater responsibility to its readers and the public record.

One of the main goals here at imediaethics is to hold news outlets to ethical standards. This includes requesting corrections, updates and disclosures be added to stories on a regular basis. More often than not, we request these updates to online stories. Editors typically comply, agreeing that transparency is important and aiming to keep the public record accurate. English’s report is a fascinating insight into the practice.

In a post for Lawrence Journal World and News, Adam Vossen says, “English has discovered that when people request a newspaper to rewrite a past story it may be for something such as charges dropped that they no longer want linked to them. An understandable request.”

He defends the newspapers not updating online because, “An article is a snapshot of history. Even if some years later its information no longer represents the contemporary, at one time it was factual. The snapshot that it embodies has relevance for future generations to reflect on.”

We ask, how can you tell a person wrongfully accused of a crime, after being proven innocent, that a story naming them a suspect should not include a footnote updating the case? This is just one example of a time when updating is absolutely necessary.

English recommends that newspapers post an online editing policy on their website and offers a suggested script for media outlets in responding to editing requests:

Thank you for writing (calling). We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove published content from our Website. If an article is inaccurate we will correct it and tell readers it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update the article or do a follow-up story.

As with our newsprint version, our online published content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our readers. To simply remove published content from the archive diminishes transparency and trust with our readers and in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.

Vossen closes by saying, “Newsrooms today have limited resources as it is, without having to go back and reword the countless articles that contain information that has changed over time. And really, isn’t that nearly every article?” In other words, is he saying that because something is time consuming or requires effort, it is not worth the task? Investigations are time consuming. Fact-checking is time consuming. Are these efforts not worth the time?

In comments posted to the article, reader mrsteffen writes, “So true Adam, every story seemingly has an infinite life. To go back and update every one would be enough work to be its own position within a news organization, and as you also pointed out newsrooms are already stretched to the max. It is unfortunate for those individuals who may be forever tied to criminal charges that were eventually dropped, but that’s life I guess.” Curious – would mrsteffen change his tune if it was he that was linked to serious charges?

A comment in English’s report, from Summit Daily News’ Alex Miller, might help Vossen and mrsteffen understand the necessity for accuracy, even in updates: “A new reporter switched the name of a suspect with the reporting party, causing an innocent man to be identified with a particularly embarrassing crime, Miller said. “In those cases, we felt justified to remove the story. He eventually sued for libel and those actions were helpful to our defense.”

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Online Editing: to Update? to Edit? to Unpublish? to do Nothing?

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