News

Perma-Net? Readers, newspapers at odds over article lifespans

Posted April 24

Just a few weeks ago, The Toronto Star got a letter from a local businessman asking that a story about him be removed from the newspaper's online archive.

The story had showcased the man's prominent business, but now, four years later, he wanted the story gone because people kept asking him for money.

The newspaper refused, and now the man is "very, very upset because we won't take it down," said Kathy English, the Toronto Star's public editor.

In the past, such a story would've faded away, only lingering as a yellowing clip in the Toronto Star's archive room or perhaps lining a birdcage somewhere.

Yet today, the story lives on forever via the Internet, quickly accessible with a few key search words.

Which explains why media experts and newspaper professionals say they're seeing a growing stream of "unpublishing requests" from readers who don't want their past published lives instantly Google-able.

English, and other media experts, believe the growing realization of the implications of "forever publishing," and even Europe's new "right to be forgotten" law are changing the way Americans think about, and try to control, their digital footprint, even though there's no such legal precedent in the United States or Canada yet.

It's a tough balancing act because many of the removal requests are heartfelt and reasonable; yet deleting an unflattering story is problematic, experts say, not just for the newspaper itself but for the community as a whole, as it sets a dangerous precedent.

"The cliché is that we (journalists) do write the first draft of history," English said. "As so many editors told me, 'It's not our job to make history disappear.' If we’ve written something, (and it's) accurate, fair, then it happened."

Digital lives

The European "right to be forgotten" ruling from May 2014 states that people can ask search engines like Google to remove personal information about them from search results if results are inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive. Search engines review each request and can only continue to show the information if it's in the greater public interest.

Since the ruling, Google has received 416,671 requests from people asking that certain links or search results be removed, according to Google’s Transparency Report.

One such request was from a high-ranking public official in Hungary who “asked us to remove recent articles discussing a decades-old criminal conviction,” according to the report. “We did not remove the articles from search results.”

Yet, when a Latvian political activist who was “stabbed at a protest asked us to remove a link to an article about the incident, [Google] … removed the page from search results for the victim's name.”

And when a German rape victim requested that a newspaper link not show up when her name was searched, they “removed the page from search results for the individual’s name,” according to the report.

However, even though the links to articles, photos, newscasts, etc., were removed from search engines, the articles and photos themselves were not. This makes it more difficult, though not impossible, to find data on someone by searching their name, explained Sandra Borden, professor of communication and co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University.

It's possible that Americans, not fully understanding these nuances, see the ruling and think it's their ticket to a clean digital record, when that's neither correct, nor even continentally applicable, said Borden, who has studied Europe's law.

“From the European perspective, they’re trying to have a kind of redress, to compensate," she said. "Before, eventually that story would fade away and you wouldn’t be able to summon it up immediately. This returns (them) to where you (have) to do a little more effort and legwork, but the information doesn’t go away.”

Fixing errors

But what if something is factually wrong in a news article?

Correcting errors has always been part of a newspaper’s responsibility to its readers and causes no immediate problems, as long as papers are upfront and transparent about what they changed.

“Stories don’t just change magically without acknowledgement,” said Scott Libin, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and the ethics chairman for the Radio Television Digital News Association. “We need to acknowledge that we’ve done so, why we’ve done so … so viewers don’t see (the corrected story) and think, ‘Oh, I guess I was wrong.’”

Along with the problem of human error is the fact that, over time, things happen that disprove or contradict earlier stories, such as an individual being arrested and charged with a crime, but later found not guilty at trial. Or a charity that received a glowing write-up, but was later found siphoning money from orphans.

When those facts come to light, experts say a small, end-of-the-story editor's note is no longer good enough.

Now it's time for a clarification at the beginning of the story in "great big letters, with a siren or something that goes off so there's no mistaking it," joked Robert Drechsel, professor of journalism ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Such a note would clarify and update the story without removing the historical record. This ensures that if the story is pulled up during an Internet search years down the road, the correct, updated information will be seen first.

Or, reporters might just write an additional story with the updated information; however, due to search engine algorithms, it's possible the stories may not pull up sequentially or even linked.

“I don’t think the solution is to remove the initial story — you can’t be changing history,” said Drechsel. “But you can be updating things to clarify something that might otherwise be misleading.”

And because mistakes will always happen and stories will continually change, journalists should see the opportunity to make corrections as a way to rebuild trust with a wary public and distinguish their voices as trustworthy, Libin said.

“People aren’t desperate for information,” Libin said, “they’re desperate for credible information … and assistance in processing that information. News organizations have an opportunity, through their responsiveness, to set themselves apart in that way.”

When to unpublish

Yet sometimes, responsiveness and offers to update or correct a story are not what the story subject wants — they just want the story gone, wiped from searchable history.

“I don’t think journalism can work that way,” said Libin. “We can’t make it like it never happened. That would not be true. If we have reported on something, we need to be accountable for that."

It doesn't mean that follow-up pieces must be splashed across the front page, but making things right doesn't mean deleting it, he said.

As unpublishing requests continue to trickle in, for English at the rate of two or three a week, she believes it's crucial for newspapers to have polices in place discussing how to handle them.

Every situation is different, and for most editors, the main question they weigh is "the harm to people (written about) … balanced against a potential broader harm to the public in not having a reliable record,” said Stephanie Craft, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois, who is working on an article about how journalists discuss unpublishing.

“Unpublishing is really seen as the extreme last resort,” she said, though that doesn't mean it never happens.

In fact, when English surveyed 110 editors about unpublishing and asked "should news organizations ever unpublish online articles?" 78 percent said yes.

Many editors agree that plagiarism is a good reason for removal, as well as a story that might put someone in physical harm, or a story done so poorly and in such poor taste that it cannot be salvaged by a correction (such as the ill-advised profile of a police officer’s sports-star-college days, after he’d been arrested for raping women, Craft pointed out).

However, most removal requests come because of court cases and legal issues — like when charges have been expunged from court records, so individuals want them removed from public records as well.

One request to the Deseret News was from an individual who was arrested for crimes but never formally charged, and wanted his arrest story and booking photo removed.

He explained to the editors that finding work in his field was almost impossible due to the search results that came up when potential employers Googled his name. Deseret News editors agreed to take down the booking mug, but left the story online with an editor's note at the top explaining that no charges were ever filed.

“On the one hand, who wouldn’t be sympathetic to that?” Craft says. “You get why someone would not want that to show up in a Google search. But the arguments that journalists make are that the arrest happened, and to the extent that it happened, it could end up being part of a larger story down the line about how law enforcement resources are spent. And now we’re affecting our ability to have a broader understanding of how policing works in our community.”

With that story erased, journalists would lose their ability to trust their own archives, thus undermining their role as historians.

“What I think the public probably doesn’t understand as much as they might, is how important a value journalists put on that historical record function of news,” Craft said. “I don’t know that that would assuage anyone’s bad feelings about the relative unwillingness to take something down, but it might help them to understand where the reluctance comes from.”

Extra caution

Because unpublishing is often such a sensitive issue, English encourages newspapers, television and radio stations to carefully create or review their own unpublishing policies, to make them clear, fair and explainable to readers and viewers.

However, Drechsel believes it's also about journalists being more careful in the first place, before anything is ever published — the antithesis of the off-hand comment he's often heard: “even if my first tweet is wrong, I’ll follow it up as soon as I’ve got things straight.”

Said Dreschel: “There’s just a terrible attitude to take.”

Instead, journalists must think through the “implications of what we’re doing,” and how any reporting could affect someone once it becomes a permanent part of the swirling data cloud.

“To me, the big message … is you need to be more careful than you’ve ever been before,” Drechsel said. “More thoughtful about the impact of what you write, because it’s not nearly as ephemeral as it was before. That’s not to say it was ever OK to make a mistake … but it never had the potential to do the kind of damage that technology now makes possible.”

Realizing that, editors must be sensitive when talking with readers who are struggling with information that continues to haunt them online, and recognize that these requests will continue to come.

"This is not an easy issue," said English. "I've just seen it intensify in the nine years I've been doing this job, and I think it will continue to do so."

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