Ethics of Purging Negative Stories From News Archives

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches.

Would that be ethical, the news executive asked?

It was a small problem then, in its infancy. Today, it’s a hot topic. A French court order holds that search engines must consider requests to remove dated links, including news stories.

In the U.S., search engines entertain appeals to remove links for issues from piracy to “revenge porn” to copyright violations. Editors continue to field requests to “unpublish” stories. “Stay on the phone until you solve the issue,” one company advises aggrieved news subjects.

“There are a number of companies out there in the business of helping people scour themselves out of online archive data,” said the digital news editor of the California media organization from which the AdviceLine question originated 10 years ago. The executive editor who posed the question retired, and a lot more has changed in the news world.

Because the deletion issue is so controversial now, the digital news editor preferred that his identity remain confidential, along with the identity of his news organization.

“It’s been an issue for years,” said the digital news editor, “since Google started indexing news content and since people began to realize that as part of a standard for employers, many look at what you do on social media and what you do on the web.”

Here’s the organization’s policy today:  “What we’ve posted online is part of our record online for publication. Our general rule is we do not remove that. If there is an error in fact, we will correct it. Or if it needs an update, we will update.”

The editor pointed out that policies change, and that could change in the future.

For that California executive editor, here’s how it started 10 years ago. One person, now divorced, wanted mention of the marriage removed from the website. A person convicted of a felony five years ago wanted the story removed, and was threatening to sue. A beauty shop owner wanted the name of a beautician removed from a story about the beauty shop because the beautician doesn’t work there anymore.

The editor asked: Is there anything unethical in keeping electronic archives? Is there any ethical requirement to honor requests for deletion? If it’s expensive to do so, would it still be ethically required? Is there an ethical requirement that a newspaper contact Google about selective removal of items from their search engines?

The AdviceLine ethics consultant at the time, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago,  said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.”

The ethicist and the editor discussed whether there is any significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive. They decided an electronic archive is more useful to the community because it is more easily accessed and searched. Therefore, the electronic archive is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive.

Both archives, however, might contain old information that some individuals might prefer was not easily accessible.

Ozar decided after that discussion that there was no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may choose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All of this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said the AdviceLine ethicist.

Although today’s digital news editor at the California publication was not aware of that long-ago exchange, he is following that advice given by the AdviceLine ethicist.

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