Sunday, April 03, 2011

Roanoke Times' policy is not to 'unpublish' online content

From the newsroom

Carole Tarrant, editor



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It seems not a month goes by when a reader doesn't ask us to censor our content.

By censor, I mean make something go away -- take a story, a photo, a tiny line of type -- off Make it vanish, purge it from the Internet, throw it down an Orwellian memory hole.

We say no to these requests, and we'll keep saying no.

Pardon me for sounding so harsh, but I feel the need to explain why such requests to "unpublish" make journalists bristle.

But first let me share a few typical requests. You might judge these as innocent enough. Each one comes with a well-intentioned story behind it.

  • A Roanoke College senior nears graduation and the start of his job hunt. He is afraid that a prospective employer will Google his name and find our story on a fraternity prank that got him into legal trouble.
  • A retiree buys an expensive house in the Smith Mountain Lake area. She is convinced that would-be robbers will scan our list of real estate transactions and target her house.
  • A young mother becomes concerned about her online privacy after she has a creepy encounter with an old acquaintance on Facebook. A Google search of her name turns up a 2006 feature story, which includes details on where she lives in the Roanoke Valley.

News, or Swiss cheese?

In each of these cases we've said no, we won't remove or alter our content. But we do try to listen to the circumstances -- and sometimes offer advice.

Concerned that your youthful arrest (or embarrassing quote -- we've heard that, too) comes up first in a Google search?

Try creating a social identity online -- with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, among other things. This will give search engines something besides our story to focus on first.

Don't want your house sale to be published because you have privacy concerns?

Well, for that I'd suggest being a bit more savvy about how the world works. Home sales are public records, and as such often are available online in other databases besides ours.

We hold a hard line on this, no doubt upsetting many individuals, because our loyalty lies with our readership as a whole. We need to retain your trust in what you read, your belief that we won't be easily persuaded into undoing history.

Imagine what our archives would look like if we yielded to every request to remove an offending story or photo. If it was a print newspaper and we took scissors to every page, the remains would resemble Swiss cheese.

This would render the archives unusable by historians who park themselves in front of library microfilm machines, browsing our pages as they piece together events from an earlier time.

Every careless young reporter is reminded of this fact by a scolding editor: "We write the first draft of history."

History's first drafts

It may interest you to know that our longtime news researcher, Belinda Harris, carefully packs up two copies of every day's edition of The Roanoke Times. One copy goes to a company called ProQuest, which takes a picture of each page and converts it to microfilm. The other copy goes to the Library of Congress.

Our archives are the first draft of this community's history. They always have been, but it's their publication online, where they live in eternal caches, that's caused this recent friction.

And we are not alone in hearing these pleas. Newsrooms around the country report fielding the same "take down" requests, in increasing numbers. Their responses typically mirror ours.

"There is an overall strong reluctance ... to remove published material from online news sources, unless there is a clear and compelling legal reason to do so, or someone's life is endangered," according to a 2009 survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors.

Margaret Holt, the Chicago Tribune's senior editor of standards, said her paper holds the hard line in resisting redactions but seeks absolute accuracy as well.

"Our starting point is we don't unpublish," she told the managing editors group. "But we are open to considering new information and adding that online."

You can expect that of us as well. Our goal is transparency -- not invisibility. We will add to a story, noting a correction of fact or clarification of important context.

But we won't, with that one quick keystroke, make it disappear.

We don't believe you'd want us to.

The Roanoke Times/ policy on removal of content

Just as we don’t issue “product recalls” for newspapers published in the past because of content that upset or embarrassed someone, in general we will not deliberately remove information published on our website, outside of the routine rotation off the site because of timeliness. The content we publish online is part of the public record, just the same as are printed newspapers preserved in attics, on microfiche in libraries or in digital archives.

However, on occasion we will consider exceptions to this policy for compassionate reasons (when something we’ve published, though accurate, may be harmful to an individual’s life), because something published online is defamatory or because the item has put an individual’s life at risk. In such instances, editors made aware of a request to remove something from our website should confer with the online editor, the managing editor and the editor. Those three editors should reach a consensus on how to respond to the request, with the default position being to keep items online unless there’s irrefutable evidence of a clear harm being caused to someone. The final decision shall rest with the editor.

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