EU Editors Avoid Russian History With Sceptical Approach to Unpublish Requests

European Journalism Centre

When a reporter or editor makes a mistake, most newsgathering organisations quickly issue a correction – both online and in print. But what happens when the error is not the result of the reporter or editor’s work, but regret on the part of a source?

How would your publication react to the following:

A major daily publishes a video story of a bride’s wedding preparations. The bride cooperated fully with the process at the time, but now her marriage has broken up. She wants the video removed from the paper’s website.

This is a true-to-life scenario, Kathy English, public editor at The Toronto Star, told the European Journalism Centre.

At the time of publication, the Star hadn’t decided whether or not to honour the bride’s “unpublish request.”

Online, News Never Dies

The reality of the online age, of course, is that anyone with a computer can find just about any information within a few clicks. And thanks to caches, online news never dies. The dilemma of what to do when sources or people mentioned in an article ask for it to be removed was a situation Ms. English first faced when she became public editor. In 2009 she produced a report for the Associated Press Managing Editors on unpublish requests and how news organisations were handling them.

“The main finding [from the report] was that policies were few and far between but people were facing the issue,” Ms. English said. “However, the overall view was that we shouldn’t be taking down content.”

The EJC contacted, via email, a number of media organisations across Europe for their views on unpublishing. Most agreed with the sentiment that newspapers should not be deleting articles that were published in good faith.

Helsingin Sanomat‘s managing editor Paula Salovaara said her newspaper does not unpublish anything without a very good reason.

“We answer every case separately; our main policy is that we will not remove anything, if the original piece of news does not have an error in it,” she said.

“There are some exceptions to the rule: we have unpublished some pictures of children or teenagers, because their parents were desperate. There have been some very rare cases of unpublishing, if the person has really good reasons.”

Papers of Record

One example of a situation in which the paper does not unpublish is from their so-called ‘election machine’ in which they present political candidates running in an election. The candidates give information voluntarily.

They agree to Helsingin Sanomat’s terms when submitting information. On occasion, a couple of years later they’ll want their information removed.

“We never unpublish information from these databases, and sometimes we get into lengthy arguments with the former politicians,” she said.

“Our reasoning is always the same: the database is a picture of a certain time and removing parts (candidates) out of it will harm the picture, and thus also the journalism we do, and the readers we serve.”

This reaction is similar to what Ms. English found in her study.

“From the editors I met with there was an overall strong feeling not to rewrite history,” she said.

Often, requests are related to crime: someone was charged with a crime and has either served his time, was acquitted or the charges were dropped. Then they want the original story off the World Wide Web. This is the most common request Tom Naegels, Ombudsman at De Standaard, deals with.

“We grant the request only in the case of convicted criminals (of minor crimes) who have served their sentence and ask for their names to be removed from the archives, because it will hamper their chances of finding a job and re-integrating into normal society,” he said.

“We do not remove the whole article though. We only change the last name to its first letter – “Tom Naegels, convicted of fraud” would then become “Tom N., convicted of fraud.” He adds that in cases of famous crimes or criminals this type of change would not occur.

Tage Clausen with the Jyllands-Posten says her paper won’t change an article based on someone’s personal situation but that on their website (jp.dk), stories are update continually. However, for the archived online copy of the printed paper (e-avisen), a link is added only if there is a correction or legal ruling.

“On jp.dk we update all the time, but changing something on e-avisen would be faking history,” he said.

For The Star, if the unpublish request is a clear ‘no,’ Ms. English will handle it. If there are potential legal or humane reasons, she discusses the issue with the paper’s lawyer and managing editor. A recent unpublish was done on the basis of humane reasons. The paper published an article on a scholarship program from the Schizophrenia Society. The society had given the paper the scholarship winners’ names, pictures, bios, etc. Afterward, one of the winners wanted the article unpublished.

“She had agreed to publicity when she first applied for the scholarship but we questioned how informed the consent was,” Ms. English said. “We hadn’t gone to her directly so we were vulnerable – for humane reasons we took the article down.”

The Commission Weighs In

Even if a publication has a policy, however loose, a potential new privacy rights law from the European Commission could have a major effect on how anyone who posts anything online complies with unpublishing requests.

The so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ law proposed in January 2012 is still being debated. Statements made by the Justice Commission at the time said the new laws were mainly to protect young people from themselves when it comes to posting photos or other potentially embarrassing information on social networking websites.

As the proposal currently stands, the only exceptions for a takedown request would be for journalistic, artistic, or literary reasons.

Ms. English says social media is where she has seen the biggest development in unpublishing since her study.

“Things replicate on the web so quickly,” said Ms. English “The schizophrenia scholarship winners’ story was picked up by bloggers who wrote about the winner, plus the article was tweeted, liked, etc.”

Discussion of the issue and having some sort of protocol in place is important Ms. English says, adding that the publication should always be transparent about what has been changed in an article.

“We’ll try and take out the offensive information versus trying to delete the whole article and post a note about how the article has been updated,” Ms. English said.

“If an article is removed completely there’ll be a note posted at the link citing legal reasons for why the article is no longer there.”