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A need for "Best Practices" on "unpublishing" Web content

By Andy Alexander

Of all the e-mails, calls and comments on Sunday’s ombudsman column, this online observation by “kcx7” best summed up the discussion over “unpublishing” online content: “Welcome to the coming zero-secrecy, zero-privacy world. It’s only going to keep getting worse, and worse, and worse.”

Questions about whether or when to remove online content are growing in frequency at The Post and other news Web sites. A study a year ago for the Associated Press Managing Editors found that “requests to unpublish are becoming increasingly frequent and are expected to increase.”

The study by Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English, based on survey responses from 110 news organizations in North America, found that 78.2 percent said there were circumstances under which online content should be removed. “But, overall, the survey revealed strong resistance to unpublishing news content,” English wrote. She concluded that there is “little news industry consensus on how to respond to public requests to unpublish news content from online news sources.”

So far, she wrote, “no overall industry ‘best practices’ have yet emerged.”

One of the core problems with unpublishing is that once information appears on a news Web site, it can quickly go viral. As online commenter “Curmudgeon10” correctly observed in response to my column, “in the Internet age, it is virtually impossible to unpublish.” An erroneous or incomplete story may be corrected or updated on the Web site where it originated. But what of those other research Web sites that archive stories for The Post or other news organizations? There’s no guarantee that their information will be made current even if the originating Web site updates the information.

Sunday’s column recounted the case of Joseph P. Unice, a retired U.S. Marshals Service chief deputy who was charged nearly 23 years ago with indecent exposure. The Post reported the charge in 1987 but didn’t do a follow-up report after a judge, according to Unice, decided the case shouldn’t go forward because the incident was inadvertent. Unice said he subsequently hired an attorney to get the charges and court proceedings expunged, so there are no public records. Today, as Unice applies for jobs to supplement his retirement income, he said prospective employers find only two short 1987 Post stories about the charges, but nothing indicating the case didn’t proceed. And because he had the pubic records expunged, he cannot point to anything in court files when trying to convince an employer that the criminal charges against him went away.

There’s a growing need for industry discussion about how to handle “unpublishing” situations like these. Those “best practices” need to emerge sooner rather than later.

Some Web sites already have begun experimenting with “sunsetting” misdemeanor offenses -- like the college freshman who gets a police citation after having too much to drink at a bar. “Some news organizations are starting to experiment with having crime stories ‘expire,’ so to speak,” said Mallary Jean Tenore, who has studied the “unpublishing” issue for the Poynter Institute on media studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. Under policies like these, reports of minor violations typically will automatically disappear from a Web site after 60 or 90 days, but they remain in the news organization’s internal archives.

But with any new policy, a key consideration is setting a precedent. “If you do it for one person, then you do it for everyone,” noted Tenore. That’s another reason for news organizations, and the industry as a whole, to ramp up the discussion on how to handle requests to unpublish. And, as Sunday’s column said, any guidelines or policies should be clearly spelled out not only to the newsroom, but also to readers.

I’m not entirely comfortable with policies that cause public information to automatically disappear from a Web site, even if it involves a misdemeanor. This kind of information, typically found through a Google search, may lack context. But once information is in the public domain, it should live on. It’s part of the historical record and should be accessible.

In more serious cases where a news organization reported a criminal charge but not an acquittal or dismissal, it may be easiest to simply attach an editor’s note updating the story. At least it would give people like Unice an opportunity to point others to the original story and its update. Or, in some cases, news organizations may want to order an entirely new story to update a situation. That updated story would probably show up prominently through search engines, meaning that a prospective employer would likely detect it in a Google search.

In the end, Tenore said, the issue may be “less about whether to publish or unpublish and more about the alternatives.”

By Andy Alexander  | August 9, 2010; 2:49 PM ET
 
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Comments

I don't believe that content should be removed from a website, will the paper then recall all microfilm copies and cut out the offending section?

removing content just sounds so Stalinesqe as it is modifying history.

But I do agree that where ever possible the newspaper should update the website and the article with an editor's note pointing out the errors. this would be especially beneficial for folks like the individual in your Sunday column

Posted by: pakurilecz | August 9, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Pretty humorous slip...in commenting on an indecent exposure charge (never pursued), the writer says:

"...he had the pubic records expunged..."

Guess the "public" records remained.

Posted by: Rigged | August 10, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Why is it that, when you click on Corrections at the bottom of washingtonpost.com, it takes you to corrections from August 2009?

Posted by: subwayguy | August 11, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

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