A New Challenge for the Media: 'Unpublishing'

A Pennsylvania legal case opens up discussion of the perennial tensions among individual desires for privacy and the news media and old thinking versus new media. Should news stories, especially those with embarrassing details, be expunged from online me

Aug 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

As clueless as a Pennsylvania case sounds, it identifies perennial tensions among individual desires for privacy and the news media and old thinking versus new media.

I’m grateful to Sara Ganim of The Centre Daily Times for the facts. The conflict involves orders for government agencies to expunge five defendants’ criminal records.

Such orders are commonplace. However, orders signed by at least two Centre County judges also told the Centre Daily Times and Penn State’s Daily Collegian to expunge accurate stories about the same defendants from their digital archives.

Attorney Joe Amendola, who represents the defendants, had added the two newspapers to the standard expungement orders he prepared for the judges’ signatures. The judges apparently signed without reading.

Amendola explained the background to the unorthodox addition to the standard expungement order. He said that an earlier client was having trouble finding employment despite having her criminal record expunged. Prospective employers Googled her name and found a 1992 Collegian article detailing her crime.

“What’s the sense in having your record expunged if anyone can Google you and it comes up,” he said.

That wasn’t all. Daily Collegian reporter Brendan McNally said Amendola submitted dozens of expungement orders that directed the Daily Collegian and Centre Daily Times to kill more stories. Since the fiasco went national on the Internet, the judges modified the original expungement orders, deleting the two papers. The lawyer’s additional orders probably won’t be signed unless the two daily papers are deleted.

However, Google isn’t the only place an embarrassing fact can be found. Once something is on the Internet, it lives forever somewhere. The only variable is the sophistication of the searcher and search engines.

Still, people want stories and photos destroyed and erasing something from digital archives now has a name: “unpublish.” That’s about as graceful as “defriend.”

In recent years, photographers have been caught enhancing images digitally and all of their images often have been deleted from news service and papers’ digital archives. This has become disturbingly common as Photoshop becomes increasingly sophisticated and editors get smarter about the possibility that a photo is too good to be true.

News stories are vulnerable, too. In the old days, reference librarians in newspapers would file published corrections with original stories. One paper I worked for used envelopes. The Enquirer used books on whose pages stories and any corrections were pasted.

Removing all of the clipped copies of a story from a newspaper library just wasn’t done. It altered publishing history. It was inaccurate. If there were an error, a correction sufficed. I can imagine newspaper librarians drinking their paste pots dry in suicide attempts rather than betray their archives.

There were exceptions. In the old days, members of the public who were allowed to look at clips sometimes stole them. Whether it was lawyers trying to protect clients or people embarrassed by what had been printed, the public no longer had the same welcoming access to our hard copy clipped-and-pasted archives. What thieves didn’t appreciate was the devotion of the newspapers' librarians, who often filed clippings under myriad subjects to make them more accessible to reporters who asked for help without much of a clue to what the story really was.

PoynterOnline quotes Kathy English, public editor of The Toronto Star, who surveyed 110 newspapers last year and found that 78.2 percent answered yes to the question: "Should news organizations ever unpublish (see above) online articles?" Despite the high percentage, she said the majority of them find alternatives to unpublishing.

English said The Toronto Star rarely unpublishes stories but could make an exception if doing so meant minimizing harm to someone.

"If someone's life is in danger, we can make a pretty good case for making a story go away," she said.

She pointed out that one of the problems with unpublishing is that, even if a news organization removes a story from its web site, there's no guarantee that another site hasn't picked up the story and quoted from it.

An exception to the defense of the integrity of the archives, whether paper or digital, was The Enquirer’s troubled 1998 series on Chiquita. It’s no longer on the paper’s web sites. Whether it exists digitally or on paper anywhere at 312 Elm Street is beyond me. I’ll bet the paper’s lawyers have copies. I do.

The Enquirer also apparently did what it could to remove the series from other Internet sites, but it survives on library microfilms (unless that archive was compromised as well).

Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan was not here for Chiquita but said, “I don't recall us doing that (unpublishing) in my tenure. We have had requests and usually have (attorney) Jack Greiner respond.”

If that were not sufficient, Callinan added, “I would make any decision.”

At cincinnatibeacon.com, Jason Haap said, “I think I did it one time, years ago. I was excitedly chasing down something I thought was a meaningful lead and posted too soon. Then I realized what I did was a ‘mistake,’ so I took it down. I did, however, leave the link — changing the text to acknowledge that what had been there previously was something about which I may have been mistaken. … Sometimes I'll post an item, and then as I'm reading it live on the site I'll notice something I don't like — like a turn of phrase or an innuendo or even a typo, and I'll change it. … If I have an error or mistake reported to me by a reader, I will correct it and make a note of it.”

At CityBeat, Editor John Fox said, “We have one or two times in the past, but nothing recently. I don't remember all the particulars, but they involved trying to appease someone who was ashamed or embarrassed about something we wrote about them in the past and wanted their past deeds 'undone' in our story archive.

“The one time I do remember in particular was a roundup story we did about young artists way back in the early years of CityBeat, and apparently this woman was quoted as saying she enjoyed partying and taking drugs, or something like that. Well, 10 years later she's applying for a job and she Googles her name and one of the first things that comes up is our story that mentions she is (was) a party gal. She kept calling and emailing asking us to remove her name from the story, and eventually I agreed because we simply took out her portion of the roundup and left the rest of the story intact, and her ‘disappearance’ didn't impact the rest of the story.

“I explained to her that just because we took her out of the story in our archives doesn't mean her Google appearance would go away — Google archives all that info, and when the original disappears the Google archive lives on. Lo and behold, a week later the woman called back almost in tears saying the story, as I told her it would, was still showing up on Google. When you clicked on the story link, it took you to the new version of the story that didn't have her name anywhere, but in the Google ‘intro’ text on their link page the woman's name was still there. I told her to call Mr. Google and see what he could do to help her, and we never heard from the woman again.

“At that moment I instituted a new policy that CityBeat won't remove full stories or partial references from anything in our online archive. It doesn't make anything disappear, for one, and it opens us up to too many ethical and practical issues about what to make ‘disappear.’ We were trying to help some people, but in the end it really doesn't help.”

Cincinnati Business Courier Editor Rob Daumeyer said he's “removed articles, etc.” for various reasons, including questions of accuracy, from the Business Courier, “but not en masse. When we do remove something, it's key to speak with Google so they can delete their cache. We actually have to call Google.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• At PoynterOnline, which explores national journalism issues and ethics, writer Mallary Jean Tenore found four common reasons for asking that something be removed from archives (above): “Sources believe that a story was unfair or inaccurate. Those who have been acquitted, or whose charges were dropped, want crime stories about them to be removed. Source remorse: A source regrets saying something and wants his or her name removed from a story, or for the story to removed altogether. Writer remorse: A writer is embarrassed by something he or she wrote. This happened recently at the University of Missouri's student newspaper, The Maneater. Editor-in-Chief Zach Toombs said by phone that a former sex columnist for the paper asked that her columns be removed because she was applying for law school and was afraid they'd taint her professional image. Toombs said they were not removed.

• Poynter’s Tenore also said journalists at seven of the eight news organizations she talked to — including ESPN, NPR and The New York Times — offered alternatives to unpublishing:

Write an addendum. She said Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times, told her that on rare occasions The Times will add an addendum to crime stories if the subject contacts the paper to say he or she was acquitted or that charges were dropped. The Times does this only for stories involving major crimes, and it requires that the person involved supply copies of related legal documents as proof. ”A lot of this is just a question of resources,” he said. ”If somebody claims that we ran a 15-year-old article and there was some subsequent development that we didn't report on, we could spend all of our reporters' time doing follow-ups to 15-year-old stories. It's not what we're in the business of doing.”

Publish a follow-up story or an editor’s note. When an addendum doesn't seem like enough, some news organizations opt to write a follow-up story with a link to the original piece. Because of the time and resources that follow-ups require, they're not always a favored option. But they allow for more context and background than an addendum does. Toronto’s English added, "Publishing a follow-up that puts the correct information on the record and links to the previous article is also a means of ensuring ongoing accuracy.”

Remove a subject’s name or the story from the Google cache. Poynter’s Tenore said that three years after The Coastsider — a community news site in San Mateo County, Calif. — ran a brief about a missing man who was seen in Big Sur, the man asked that the story be taken down. Instead of unpublishing it, Coastsider Editor and Publisher Barry Parr removed the man's name and requested that the story be removed from Google's cache. (To minimize the chances of the story being re-indexed, Parr asked Poynter not to link to it.) The story still appears on the paper's site but says ”[name obscured]” in place of where the man's name once appeared.

Run a correction or clarification. When sources see that information in a story is wrong or misleading, they sometimes ask for the entire story to be unpublished. News organizations will typically correct the story or run a brief clarification.

The Enquirer’s impoverished copy desk was evident when a recent page-length column of Area News had five crime stories that all named the culprit: Man. It was Man charged, Man guilty, Man accused, Man accused, Man ordered. The copy desk is where headlines usually are written and edited by a copy desk chief before being set in type. It appears that Man escaped scrutiny. But it gets better: That same paper’s Page 1 had a major feature on a man fighting melanoma, a potentially deadly skin cancer associated with sun exposure, and a Local Life cover photo of a youngster flopped down in swim trunks in the sun. Among other things, melanoma is associated with childhood overexposure to sun.

• There is a further lesson in the fiasco surrounding Shirley Sherrod’s Internet-fueled firing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s time for the news media to bury the term “reverse discrimination.” A selectively edited video clip suggested that Sherrod — then a state official — denied aid to a farmer in Georgia. She’s black and he’s white. News stories and bloggers often called that “reverse discrimination.” Bad reasoning, worse choice of words. Ironically, when they embrace the phrase, white journalists and conservative bloggers affirm the belief that discrimination is something whites do, but when a white is the victim it’s “reverse.” Nope. Discrimination is discrimination.

• Pavlovian wingnut damnation of The New York Times was missing after its stories about Wikileaks’ disclosure of confidential U.S. communications about and from Afghanistan. My guess is that from the Oval Office down to vigilantes hunting Hispanics on our border with Mexico, everyone who cares is grateful to Times reporters for reading and distilling those thousands of emails into coherent presentations.

• And of greater importance than the Wikileaks stories is The Washington Post’s series on the metastasis of so-called “intelligence” operations since 9/11. It’s hardly a formulaic liberal assault on spying. Rather, The Post found an enterprise so large and unwieldy that no one knows what’s going on or how many people, agencies and contractors are doing the same work. How that protects us was not clear.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]