By Hali Ortega
Online stories have a few perks for journalists. Stories online can be edited, updated, and allow readers to be active through comments. Still there is a downside to the online story: the unpublishing request.
A request for a story to be taken off websites emerge from reasons ranging from sources changing their mind, to people believing the story is unfair or inaccurate. Unlike print stories, these requests can actually be followed through. These online articles can be searched and found with a few key words, making requests to unpublish a possibility at any time.
For journalists this brings up the ethical dilemma of what qualifies to be unpublished and the repercussions of erasing history. Journalists generally follow four ethical guidelines: seek out truth and report it as fully as possible, act independently, minimize harm, and be accountable. When unpublishing an article, a balancing act between all of these ethics must occur.
Elizabeth Zwerling, an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County, gave a few examples on the issue of unpublishing online articles. In one request a friend of hers received she wrote, “In late 2005 he was asked to alter the archive of a 1999 story about same-sex couples by one of the sources profiled in the La Verne Magazine. “She said she wasn’t gay anymore,” said George Keeler, journalism professor and magazine adviser. ‘It was a painful thing, but I wrote her back and said I wasn’t going to erase (her past),’ The story, now eight years old, come up first when the source’s name is typed into Google and Yahoo!’s engines.”
Here the journalist felt the truth outweighed the harm from the story. When dealing with unpublishing stories these are the types of decisions journalists have to make.
In reality very few news organizations/journalists fully delete an article. Generally they find other ways to deal with the unpublish request as a compromise. Poynter
details four other ways most unpublishing requests are dealt with:
Writing an addendum.
Taking a source’s name out of the story and/or removing the story from Google’s cache.
Running a correction.
Writing a follow-up story.
Although sometimes the story is simply left as is after weighing out the ethical choices. The matter of which ethic holds the most weight is up to the organiztion/journalist’s own discretion.