How exactly would an editor rationalize a decision to unpublish? What alternatives are available? The Canadian Association of Journalists ethics committee took an actual unpublishing request made to a major Canadian news organization and analyzed it according to the guidelines we authored in 2010.
By Tim Currie
Managing editors at online news outlets have likely heard a number of stories like these in the past few years: a law student charged in connection with a prank bomb threat finds his job prospects harmed months later—and wants the news story about those charges removed. Another man who once shared gritty details about his drug addiction for a feature story just wants to get on with his life—but says he can’t until his name disappears from the online story.
In her Associated Press Managing Editors study, the Toronto Star’s Kathy English found news organizations are being contacted by increasing numbers of sources who feel they can’t escape the shadow of once being mentioned in a news story. Prospective employers, friends and colleagues still seem to find that story. Google returns it among the top results for a query of their name—the search giant recognizes the news website as a source of high-quality information and rewards the SEO practices of the trained editor who posted it.
The people emailing and phoning the editors often relate heart-wrenching circumstances of ongoing shame and financial distress. Why can’t the news organization show some simple compassion by deleting that story from long ago?
In 2010, English and her colleagues (including myself) on the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Advisory Committee advised journalists: don’t go there. English was the primary author of the document that outlined best practices for handling unpublishing requests. It was the first document in North America to tackle this issue in depth.
Its primary piece of advice was: “We are in the publishing business and generally should not unpublish.” However, it gave editors an out: There may be “some rare cases” in which unpublishing is “the humane thing to do.”
How exactly would an editor rationalize a decision to unpublish? What alternatives are available?
Four years later, the ethics committee has revisited this issue. The committee took an actual unpublishing request made to a major Canadian news organization and analyzed it according to the guidelines we authored in 2010.
Here is that case study, along with an interesting postscript to the news organization’s deliberations on the matter.
Tim Currie teaches online journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He is co-editor of The New Journalist: Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking.
Correction, Nov. 23, 2016: A previous version of this story referred to English's study as a CAJ one, rather than an Associated Press Managing Editors one. We apologize for the error.
Related content on J-Source:
- Why the Star won't unpublish stories on criminal charges: Kathy English
- The ethics of unpublishing
- When should editors "unpublish" online news reports?