UnPublishing? WaPo Public Editor addresses requests to remove content

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Andrew Alexander, the public editor for The Washington Post, discusses unpublishing in a recent column and blog post. (Credit: The Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s public editor Andrew Alexander is the latest to weigh in on the unpublishing debate.  “Unpublishing” is the word used to describe removing a story or part of a story from a news organization’s website.

In early August, Alexander wrote in both his column and blog about some of the questions news organizations face with unpublishing requests and the need for news organizations to establish a standard or “best practices.”

As Alexander and others have written, often members of the public approach media organizations to request that names or reports including them be removed from their sites.  The most common reasons are “source remorse” (someone is quoted in the newspaper and then changes their mind later about being quoted) and embarrassment over public records.

Because, as StinkyJournalism has written before, many news organizations publish initial court records — such as police blotters of misdemeanor crime offenses — but never follow-up and report what happened with the case, many individuals approach news outlets requesting that the report be scrubbed from their archives.  It’s become an issue because of Google and other web based searches: prospective employers can easily find old, incomplete court records that end up tarring the names of applicants.

That is exactly what happened with Joseph P. Unice, a retired U.S. marshal deputy, who has found a dated crime report haunting him as he has applied for supplementary work to his retirement income.

Unice, Alexander wrote, was charged with indecent exposure in 1987, and The Post reported it.  Unice’s “exposure” was deemed inadvertent, but The Post never reported that.  While the 1987 report isn’t available on The Post’s website, other websites like High Beam and Encyclopedia still show the archived arrest when Unice’s name is Googled.

Alexander wrote that the newspaper usually rejects any requests to unpublish, but in Unice’s case, the request was for fairness, not embarrassment.  Even though Unice was cleared of charges, his prospective employers only can find that he was charged in the first place.

Unice’s case raised several journalism issues:

  • Many news sites re-publish news organizations’ stories.  How do corrections on the original story get to the re-published versions?
  • Is it OK to use a “sunsetting program” which would automatically expire certain types of stories published online? While Poynter’s Mallary Tenore noted some news organizations are trying out these types of programs, Alexander opined that he isn’t “entirely comfortable” with systems that would automatically erase information.
  • When is it OK to remove certain information from a story, including names and identifying information?

As iMediaEthics found in late March through interviews with five U.S. news editors, newspapers don’t like unpublishing.  They’d rather update or add a correction to a story, than to remove the story completely.

Editors feel that way because newspapers are considered part of the historical record.  And, “altering a newspaper’s historical record, which lives in digital databases and is relied on for research, can erode credibility,” Alexander wrote.

While The Washington Post  doesn’t have a written policy for unpublishing or keep track of unpublishing requests, Alexander reported that a draft of The Post’s updated corrections policy includes the following note on unpublishing:

“We generally won’t ‘unpublish’ or simply remove articles or blog posts after discovering an error. We can republish a corrected version as soon as possible, with the acknowledgement of the original error.”

But, does that really offer any help for editors?  Or the public?  Like Alexander wrote, the newspaper should create guidelines for unpublishing not just for itself but also for readers to understand how and if they can request unpublishing.

Alexander quoted Washington Post senior editor Milton Coleman, who worked on the drafted unpublishing guidelines, as saying that the newspaper views any reported incident as fact and that the newspaper “cannot and should not act like it did not occur.”  So, the newspaper’s obligation is to correct the report “since these things live forever online.”

In a follow-up blog Aug. 9, Alexander cited Toronto Star editor Kathy English’s 2009 study “The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or not to unpublish,” which found that there aren’t “best practices” established yet for unpublishing, despite a majority of surveyed editors (78.2% of 110 North American news organizations) saying there are times when unpublishing is warranted.

iMediaEthics wrote last December about English’s study, which argues that for transparency, a news site can’t just erase a story without notation.

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UnPublishing? WaPo Public Editor addresses requests to remove content

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