Unpublished: The Internet eraser

 

Media is no longer bound by the physical limitations of printing press or even antennae. Information can travel the entire world, be preserved for all eternity or be changed at a later date. This has opened up a slew of new doors for journalists, presenting opportunities to correct old stories, display media only when the user is ready for it and build up vast, publicly accessible archives of old content.

But while this has opened up many new opportunities, it has also raised a series of difficult ethical and legal questions. What obligation does an online news source have to maintain old content? What if a journalist is found to be engaging in misconduct? What do you do after a reporter leaves the company?

These are questions that were never raised in the “print and move on” era of journalism that are now front and centre on the web. Unfortunately, the answers seem to be difficult to find. Even some of the most cutting-edge sites when it comes to web reporting are struggling with these issues.

This has given rise to a new term: “unpublished”. It describes the act of removing works after they have been put up.

A mass unpublishing

In late June, sex blogger and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Violet Blue noticed that the popular blog Boing Boing had removed all posts referencing her, estimated to be updwards of 70 posts, completely removing her name from the site. Boing Boing defended itself, saying that it was an “editorial decision” similar to what they do “every day” and that they were within their rights.

Around the Internet the matter became a source of controversy. The site was accused of censorship. Rumours began to swirl about the cause of the mass deletion and many questioned the ethics of Boing Boing, a site that is generally well-respected among bloggers.
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In the end, Boing Boing did not restore the posts in questions. They did admit that “In attempting to defuse drama, we inadvertently ignited more. Mind you, we weren’t the ones splashing gasoline around; but we did make the fire possible.”

The incident raises severe questions about when it is appropriate for a site, be it a small blog or a major news out outlet, to remove or alter old material. In short, is there ever an appropriate time to “unpublish” something?

An ethical dilemma

The problem many had with the Violet Blue/Boing Boing controversy was the the posts in question did not seem to violate any of the site’s policies. Boing Boing routinely discusses sex-related matters on the site and even had such an article up on the day the controversy broke.

That made the unpublishing of Violet Blue seem to be personally motivated and, thus, unprofessional. Many considered the decision to remove the posts as being petty and one motivated more by emotion than a desire to improve the quality of the site.
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For journalists, unpublishing is equally as dangerous. As this case proves, people often do notice when something is removed from the site and it can be very controversial if it is removed for what is seen as less-than-pure reasons. Journalists need to be careful when they choose to remove something from their site and only do so for reasons that are consistent with their stated editorial policy.

Examples might include the following:

  • Misconduct: If a reporter or correspondent is found to be plagiarising, inventing material or engaging in some other form of severe misconduct, removing his work may make sense, especially if it is widespread. Any content found to be violating editorial content should be removed regardless of whether or not the other works are.
  • Factual errors: If a story is factually wrong and it can not be easily corrected, it may make sense to remove it and replace it with a newer, more accurate story instead.
  • Age: Though most visitors prefer robust archives, especially with a paid subscription, many news organisations only archive stories for a certain number of years before removing them. If that is the stated policy, then removing old stories makes sense.
  • Legal disputes: Lawyers often advise clients to remove material that is the subject of a legal dispute even if there is no clear wrongdoing. If such a situation arises, listen to your attorneys and follow the instructions they provide.
  • Site reorganisation: If a site is reorganised, for example sections are combined and/or removed, and articles do not fit into the new system, it may be necessary to remove them. However, it is best to attempt to preserve all content that you can both for visitors and for the search engines.

With that in mind, there are also several reasons that would generally not be viewed as acceptable for removing posts, especially a large number of them.

  • Personnel issues: If an employee is terminated or leaves the company, removing their work from the site is bad form and is seen as an attempt to remove all traces that they were there. There is an exception, of course, for employees that were found engaging in rampant misconduct.
  • Topic deletion: Though news outlets are free to decide what they will cover going forward, it is generally thought of as bad form to remove all references to a person or a topic in the past simply because you do not wish to talk about it moving forward. This, many feel, was the mistake Boing Boing made.
  • Opinion: Editorial content is always difficult, but removing content based upon the opinion it expresses is almost always a bad idea. If an opinion is offensive, hateful or otherwise unable to be published, it should not be allowed on the site at all. Removing opinions once published opens up the door to allegations of bias and censorship.

In short, it is important to only remove material that violates a clear editorial policy and not because it is something someone may desire to simply “cover up” or “get rid of”. Removal is a tool that should be used with the highest level of care, not something that should be used to fill personal or corporate whims.

Conclusions

Whenever faced with decisions about whether or not to remove an article, a recording or a series of either, always ask if it would be appropriate and worthwhile to do the same to your corporate archives. If it isn’t worth going through your massive archives and physically removing copies there as well, it likely isn’t worth removing from the web.

While the nature of print and broadcast media make such removals impractical, it is important to think of one’s web archive as being not just content for visitors, but a history of the organisation.

Although we have all made mistakes and done things we’d rather forget, the fact that we now have a “delete” button does not mean we should use it to fulfil those desires. Such a powerful tool should only be used when appropriate and, as the Boing Boing case showed, those are quite rare.