Removing stories from Web sites is like unringing a bell
Original post made by Gina Channell-Allen, president of the Pleasanton Weekly, on Jan 11, 2008
Most often this request comes through because search engines are picking up these stories that in print version would have been hidden in a file among other old, dead stories in a newspaper's morgue, rarely to resurface. Now, with the click of a mouse, prospective and current employers, sweethearts, neighbors and friends can "Google" a name--even your name--and get an electronic history, all the good and bad. In some cases what the search produces has cost people a date, a job interview or a job.
There are two issues at hand: the first being whether or not the information is correct and the second is the electronic archiving of the information.
The issue of correcting online stories is becoming quite a controversy in the journalism industry. The troubling part is not whether to correct the inaccuracy, but how to correct it. When an error occurs, should the information be corrected within the story, or should the correct information be added to the top of the story with an editor's note, or both?
However, the request that came recently to the Pleasanton Weekly newsroom for the post to be removed didn't concern incorrect information being published. The information was correct, but embarrassing.
To unpublish an online news story is like un-ringing a bell. Once a story is published online, it goes to email feeds, search engines and site subscribers. Within a few minutes, people will have read the story and some may have posted comments. Removing a story completely leaves a void in the continuum of feedback comments posted. And when site visitors remember reading something and then it completely disappears, they question what else has "disappeared" and why. This is also the reason an editor's note at the top of an online story noting any corrections is important. People need to know what has been changed in a story and why.
Journalists use a series of guidelines to determine whether a story is valid. These same guidelines are used to determine whether or not to un-publish a story, or a portion of a story. For example, they ask themselves about the purpose of the story, the stakeholders in the decision to remove the story and the consequences they will face if the story is removed. Alternative courses of action, such as deleting a portion of the story, appending an editor's note with further explanation or amendments, re-reporting the story, etc., and the consequences of those, are also considered.
We also need to be able to explain the decision to the stakeholders and to the readers, remembering there are always at least two sides to every story and at least two individuals affected by our decision. For example, in the request that came to our newsroom, the individuals and groups that sustained injury because of the actions of the individual in the story would certainly not benefit from it being deleted as if it never occurred.
Altering or deleting an accurate news story would be like rewriting history, which doesn't manifest transparency or trust in a news organization.
Gina Channell-Allen, a 20-year journalism veteran, is the president of the East Bay division of Embarcadero Publishing Company, president of the Pleasanton Weekly and publisher of the Danville Weekly. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.