Unpublishing the news

404-error-300x286About two years ago during ethics class in j-school, a classmate of mine who was blossoming into and has gone on to be an impressive and smart journalist, uttered words to which I reacted with such vehemence that she actually stopped her presentation to comment on my gaping jaw.

“If people could see what happens in a newsroom, they’d be horrified,” she said. While there are indeed plenty of horrifying things happening in newsrooms (just kidding on that last one; I confess to enjoying The Newsroom in all its guilty, guilty pleasure), what she was referring to in particular was the old adage (which every profession applies to itself): “Watching journalism being made is like watching sausage being made.

Well, years and plenty more experience later, I still detest that sentiment, and believe deeply in transparency wherever journalists can manage it. Of course, there are arguments to be made against transparency. There are circumstances in which sources need protection. In working and publishing behind a paywall in my last two jobs, I’ve also learned that there are shades of transparency, and complete openness isn’t always the profitable kind. And of course, sharing everything about how we dig up news could devolve into the worst kind of navel gazing.

Yet, I’m compelled to think on this further by Jill Abramson’s recent words on transparency: “Our default position is to inform the public.” Does that apply to how we gather and produce the news too? If we’re open about the process, won’t we lessen the burden of regret?

I first started wondering about transparency as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, when faced with a number of requests from recent graduates to take down articles which they perceived as unfavorable. These ranged from the expected (“That article about the time I was arrested for having all that marijuana in my dorm room really isn’t helping in my job search.”) to the complicated (“Those charges were dropped, and your reporter never followed up or even tried to get in touch with me.”) to the bizarre (“Can you please get rid of that super-flattering feature story on how my business partner and I started a company in our freshman year?”)

This type of quandary prompted me to develop an ethics policy for the paper, and what I found in my research stuck with me. As part of the aforementioned ethics class, I explored the idea of “unpublishing the news” in a lengthy capstone-esque paper, which I was inspired to return to today. I’ve summed up my “findings” here. To read my report in its original form and entirety, check out this PDF.

I’d love to know what you think, too.

News publications get slammed with the same request over and over again: take that information off the web, would you, please?

Kathy English, public editor for The Toronto Star, began surveying and speaking with peer publications when she saw the requests landing on her desk day after day.  What she found, as printed in a report she did for the organization the Associated Press Managing Editors, seems to be what is a prevailing attitude toward online publishing.

“Many regard online reports as more easily altered than print content,” she writes. “Some believe the content report is inaccurate or unfair. Some experience what might be called ‘source remorse’ and rethink what they want the public to know about them. Others may be embarrassed by what is written about them; they decide they don’t want the public to know their marital status, or what they paid for their home. In some cases, these requests emerge many months, even years, after original publication when those named in the news understand that through Google and other search engines, the news article in which they are named is easily accessible to the general public.”

This attitude comes up in every aspect of reporting the news online. Indeed, publications must make judgments on how handle requests from sources, who might request their quotes be taken out of articles – and also from  writers, reporters and bloggers who request their regrettable articles, columns or other work to quietly disappear from the archives. Of course, then editors request grammatical or clerical changes. Everyone wants his or her hands in the information all the time, since it is so easy to modify. The days when an article, however authoritative, well-written and thoroughly edited it was, was simply published and left alone, are gone.

Creative Commons | opensourceway.com
Creative Commons | opensourceway.com

So is this 2084?

What would George Orwell have to say? In 1984, he was worried that a news organization’s paper materialization could be manipulated to construe history, language – our very basic medium of communication – and the truth. Winton Smith, his book’s main character, worked at the Ministry of Truth, a place where history was re-written and news articles were sent into an incinerator.

What risks do we face now, when the Internet offers a brand new, very malleable platform for information? Is this a time in which news organizations’ online manifestations are Orwell’s Ministry of Digital Truth? Are websites’ IT staff and producers, hunched over keyboards, waiting for orders to press delete, Winston Smith IVs?

Orwell addresses the need for permanence of and accessibility to an independent public record. How much is this a responsibility and obligation of journalists in a digital age?

To begin with, news organizations are bound by the law, and there are some instances in which legality plays a part in unpublishing decisions. There are in fact certain circumstances under which journalists are legally bound to remove content from their websites.

“I think it can be legally a problem given certain circumstances,” says David Rubin, dean emeritus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The circumstances that Rubin describes include libel, invasion of privacy and copywright infringement. “It would have to be information that was published that would give rise to some sort of tort,” he says. In these cases, failure to remove the content could be seen as negligence in a lawsuit.

In an edited, written interview with Poynter.org associate editor Mallory Jean Tenore, lawyer Rachel Matteo-Boehm recommends publications seek legal assistance in unpublishing cases. She says that, “If there is an error in the content, legal counsel can instruct the organization on the best way to proceed, taking into account any applicable retraction statutes.”

Many of the cases that news organizations face, however, do not arise from easily identifiable errors of fact on the part of the reporting. Legal guidance often doesn’t play a part. Rather, it becomes the burden of the journalists to examine the ethical implications of removing or not removing content from online.

The policies for unpublishing matter to the professionals in the field, to the subjects of the articles in question, and to the members of the audience who seek the information. It’s important to keep in mind what all three of these parties consider the purposes of journalism to be, and which of those purposes should be weighed against each other. Journalism, in its most basic definition, is seen as a service of record – the eyes and ears – for the public, and all with respect for the public’s greater good. If all parties can agree on these terms of journalism, journalists can begin to develop policies for undertaking that service on the Internet. This medium may be a relatively new player, but journalism is not a new game, and existing ethics and precedents can be applied.

English writes that this type of request brings up a lot of questions for her: “What’s fair to readers? What’s fair to those we report on? How do news organizations respond to such requests in a manner consistent with journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability and transparency, in order to fulfill the news industry’s stated goal of building trust in the news?”

For the Toronto Star, English formulates an answer: “The policy states that we generally do not unpublish unless there are legal reasons to do so. We regard published content as a matter of public record whether it is published on newsprint or online.”

Syracuse University’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Orange, has an unpublishing policy of its own, which states that “The Daily Orange does not remove articles from its Web site without a compelling legal justification.” It goes on: “We believe unnecessarily altering the contents of dailyorange.com would be a disservice to our readers and the communities we serve by preventing our online component from accurately documenting history as it happens. ”

Even with such a policy in place, The Daily Orange has received a steady income of requests over the last two years. Former managing editor Kathleen Ronayne says the way she thought about the situation when she held her position was, “We never unpublish ever, but if we change something, we always do an update at the top explaining why.”

Ronayne could think of a few examples of times that the paper had a tougher time of deciding what to do, and in some instances, made changes to the online versions of the article. One of those cases was a matter of removing the name of a student who was interviewed as part of a story about off-campus crime. Some time after publication, the student began receiving threatening emails and phone calls. Ronayne said that at the time, the paper felt a sense of obligation to the students’ safety, though she acknowledged that the disclosure of the students’ name should have been discussed before publication. Another time unpublishing came up during Ronayne’s tenure was when the Daily Orange published an article about a drag show on campus. Despite her initial concerns about sensitivity to language, the article was published with some words and phrasing that was later retracted for its perception as “offensive to the LGBT community,” Ronayne says, adding that they were careful to make a bold distinction of the change at the top.

Recently, The Daily Orange was confronted with a new problem, also provoked by digital publishing. The paper started putting entire PDF versions of its archives online, and the text of the PDFs is searchable.

Another former editor-in-chief, Dara McBride, says that this presents a new problem for handling takedown requests.

“We might take it offline, but we don’t go into our archives and cut it out of the page. So, if we have a PDF what do we there? Do we black out the article? We’re not going to black it out in the archives that we have or that the university stores. And for many things you have to battle with ‘do I change this?’ Because that’s the way history was reported.”

The Guardian has also responded to the unpublishing dilemma. Its “reader’s editor,” Siobhain Butterworth, in a column published in 2008.  doesn’t shy away from the important questions that this topic presents to the profession of journalism: “Should a newspaper website agree to un-publish on request?” she writes.

“The answer to that question depends what you think a newspaper’s archive is for, and whether you think it matters if there are holes where articles used to be.”

Butterworth suggests that the parties involved in journalism – all three of them: the subjects, audience, and people in the profession – “don’t fully understand the implications of speaking to or even writing for a news organisation in the web age.”

Butterworth suggests that web journalism begs for a new metaphor, that “The web makes a lie of the old cliché that today’s newspaper pages are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. Nowadays, as I’ve said before, the things you say about yourself in a newspaper are more like tattoos – they can be extremely difficult to get rid of.”

The Guardian takes the same approach to unpublishing requests that most other news organizations with stated policies have taken – not to do so unless for legal reasons or to correct factual errors. Butterworth’s perspective, though, is particularly notable because she recognizes the vast change that the Internet has created in the way we think about journalism and its archive, but she concludes with a very basic principle of the profession of journalism, and of communication as a whole: “Thinking before you speak is the best option of all.”

Through all of the requests and underneath all of the bombardment of this new problem, it seems that the editors such as Butterworth, English and the editors of the Daily Orange have a common problem: Someone is sorry.

Joel Kaplan, associate dean of professional graduate studies and recently named ombudsmen of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, says that for those subjects who appear in an article, as sorry as they may be or as sorry as journalists may feel for them, “That’s life.” He suggests that “That’s the way it goes. To me, there’s no difference from what was on the website than what was in the morgue of the newspaper. It’s there, it’s there. It’s done, it’s done.”

But Kaplan, like many other editors, feels it’s an appropriate action to follow up on those circumstances with editor’s notes or updates. “It’s still factual and accurate that the person was arrested. But also, there’s new information that the charges were dropped so I think yeah – you should follow up.” In his own articles, which as an ombudsmen he is now publishing online with little editorial supervision, he is glad the Internet presents the option of seamless correction.

“The beauty of a website is – in a newspaper, if you make a legitimate mistake, you run a correction, but you have no way of really correcting a mistake – but here you do have a way of correcting it. So part of me says ‘yeah you should go ahead and fix it,’ but I guess for full disclosure and transparency, once you correct it, you should make a note saying there was an error in here or we changed some things, found out more information and changed it.”

In addition to being transparent, Kaplan also suggests publications be consistent in the way corrections are made.

While making changes consistently and transparently is a step in the right direction, should journalists worry that sources and subjects are dictating what articles and information require follow-up? The lines drawn in the model of journalism in the 21st century are hazy. Perhaps audience, subject and journalist are not discrete entities in digital worlds. But just how much of a say should the subjects, sources and audience have about which articles get follow-ups and updates?

The reality is that the current news cycle and the model of online publishing set forth by leading news websites, like say, The New York Times is one of constant exploitation of the ease Internet publishing offers. It’s a breeze to publish, unpublish, alter, delete, amend, retweet, repost, and republish content.

In a 2007 column, the public editor at the time, Clark Hoyt, expounded on the growing problem of unpublishing, and how information on the Internet follows people.

Hoyt points out that the interests of subjects and sources are actually quite the opposite of the business-minded news organization, which models its content and publishing mechanisms around the idea of search engine optimization. The notion that news naturally dissipates in the public memory is impossible.

“The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything last forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events,” Hoyt writes.

Currently, it seems that the online “story” represents something nothing like the reality of a story unfolding. Joseph Burgess, a staff member of the Office of the Public Editor of the New York Times, responded in an email the Times updates its content constantly, and frequently on the same original publication of a story – and sometimes incorrect information is altered to be true.

“The Times for the most part does a reasonable job at providing readers with an understanding of the mistakes in the previous versions and appending corrections on the bottom of the online versions,” says Burgess. “With that being said, The Times has been inconsistent at times with its standards, perhaps due to the speed of the current news environment, that allows some of these mistakes to pass by and go unchecked or unnoticed. This is rare, but it does happen.”

nytimesArthur Brisbane, another former public editor at the New York Times, has written a number of columns on the influence of the speedy news environment and the idea of information changing and seeming to disappear: “… the reality is that digital news delivery on continuous cycle drastically increases the volume and difficulty of these decisions.”

In these columns, Brisbane points to the example of the online reporting of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January. He breaks down the series of updates to that one “article” on the Times’ website. They took place at 1:47 p.m., 1:53, 2:16 and 2:27 – the time at which the website announced Giffords had been killed. In only a short time, the inaccuracy of her death was removed from the article.

“So why does a story get framed this way? Journalism educators characterize this kind of framing as a storytelling habit – one of relating new facts to an existing storyline – and also as a reflex of news organization that are built to handle some topics well, and other topics less well,” Brisbane writes about the Giffords story unraveling.

Of course, this makes sense. The reporting and editing process is, after all, a process of gathering and assessing, vetting and checking, constructing and contextualizing. But now, that all happens, bit by bit, on a web page.

Brisbane’s last column having to do with altering web content is a call for transparency as a new editor-in-chief makes her place at the helm of the New York Times. “There is one thing in particular that I hope they keep in mind: Like the newsroom itself, the daily news report is evolving rapidly, and The Times will benefit by having clear standards for how mistakes and changes are handled in the fast-paced digital environment,” Brisbane writes.

In response to the doubts editor-in-chief Jill Abramson expresses to Brisbane that the Times could realistically keep the kind of record he calls for, he says this:

“I realize there are other priorities. But more attention to this issue would bring two clear benefits. First, The Times could offer more transparency to its readers and stem the erosion of trust that occurs when readers don’t understand mysterious content changes. Second, by more carefully retaining important published material, including all corrections, The Times could reinforce to its staff the importance of accuracy and full disclosure when errors happen. Enforcing and publishing a clear set of standards would go a long way toward ensuring that time-tested news values survive in the digital age.”

The good news is that technology seems to be on our side. Instead of stifling a new vision, it offers options for Internet publishing to create more dynamic systems of storytelling.

“I think we should take advantage of technology when we can,” says Rubin, Newhouse dean emeritus. It’s not hard for him to imagine many ways for the Internet to operate as a tool for painting a more complete picture of a story.

“What I would like is as new information comes along, yes it would be published in other stories, so in fact if you do a good job of research online you could find old stories, and newer stories – you can put the whole tapestry together, but it also might be valuable if somehow they would append to the old story,” Rubin suggests.

Transparency could certainly be a part of that tapestry; notes about updates, simple indicators like color or parentheses could help readers understand changes.

The Internet is an opportunity for journalists to have a malleable, flexible medium for present more whole, textured stories. Former WashingtonPost.com Managing Editor for Multimedia Tom Kennedy said that he thought the kind of layered reporting that the Internet allows for is an opportunity for journalists.

“There’s still some adjusting going on with respect to the notion of how do you communicate the unfolding of news over time … it grows out of the same idea that you learn some basic things in the journalistic process and as new information comes in it enlarges and enriches what’s being presented,” Kennedy says. “So it’d be creating this sort of layered, textual flow of information.”

While Kennedy was at the Washington Post, he says, the policy was to correct mistakes and update when appropriate, but to do so transparently by indicating with notes at the top of articles and pointing to specific changes or alterations, and retaining the original version of the article in an online archive.

Kennedy emphasizes that though he hasn’t seen a strong sense of obligation for news organizations to consistently and transparently update their archives, he can envision it being a viable task. “… It really depends on creating mechanisms that would help with the updating so that it doesn’t become so onerous that it can’t be accomplished.” Kennedy sees the mechanisms of tagging and categorizing as offering an opportunity for modernizing the archiving process.

Newspapers diligently strive to be more truthful, not simply less false. The process of creating information repositories – stories, records – is part of the truth that news publications produce and publish. When they entirely scrap iterations of articles, the reader experiences a loss, and that the publication is doing a disservice to a bigger picture of transparent and accurate reporting.

The Internet is a platform that places no restrictions on the kind of complete, thorough report of a subject for which journalists strive. Web stories are not restrained by the time or space of newsprint. Part of the truth of a story is the reports generated on that that story. When The Daily Orange used offensive language in their coverage of an article about the transgender community, that action was news itself. The fact that they felt it necessary to correct the language was news, too.

Journalism, while it has immediate practical applications for its constituents, exists as the eyes and ears of a culture, as well as a community in time. We would never think of cutting out or blacking out the racist language or reports generated by newspapers before the Civil Rights era. The record of mistakes is integral to understanding culture, and the development of history.

An understanding of the reporting process – however fraught with mistakes or new information – is part of understanding the truth about the subject reported. The Internet is a place capable of having multiple iterations of articles accessible and transparent to readers. It gives anyone the ability to undertake a “forensic investigation on the reporting – how and why it was done,” says Rubin. “But then the news organization would have to say ‘do we want to devote the time to do it that way? Do we really want to make it possible for somebody to do a forensic investigation on our reporting? These are tough questions.”

The toughest question, though, is why wouldn’t a news organization want it to be possible for readers to understand the intricacies and details of their reporting?

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