Removing stories from Web sites is like unringing a bell
Original post made by Gina Channell-Allen 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 email@example.com.
on Jan 11, 2008 at 7:53 pm
Gina seems to want comments on this story.
Anyone here ever hear of the Wayback Machine aka the Internet Archive? I've seen their racks of servers at a datacenter in SF. Quite an extensive collection. In a lot of cases they won't have everything on the entire website archived, but the possibility is there. Web Link
My point is that even if PW were to remove a story from their website, it may still exist on the Internet in some form. People in general do not respect this true power of the Internet. I'm reminded of the story last year sometime of the law student who couldn't get hired by some law firms she applied to because an Internet search showed embarrassing photos of her. Teens especially need to be careful because they think it fun to post photos of themselves drinking alcohol and partying on their MySpace pages. That will only come back to haunt them.
on Jan 12, 2008 at 5:58 pm
If the published information is not accurate, I can understand the request to remove the story. However, if the information is "embarrassing" but accurate, then I support not deleting it. It is a record of your publishing history.
In my opinion, it is crazy making to remove a story after readers have commented online about it. It is a way of asking people to pretend that something didn't happen, when in fact it did. Also, what is embarrassing today, may not be embarrassing tomorrow. Deleting a story may also result in other actions being initiated that could lead to even further public attention and additional embarrassing revelations.
on Jan 12, 2008 at 7:17 pm
I personally would consider removing a story for any reason the exception rather than the rule. I also realize that this because of the net and how it is used and/or abused today. I agree with Cholo points. Its like saying something out loud you then realizing you should not have said anything. You can't take it back or make people forget you said it. Just need to be careful what you say/type online.
Loosing the public trust in your word because of this is far more important that the single issue of someone being embarrassed about the article.