Removing material from your archives

This section addresses these ethical issues:

Sooner or later, your organization will receive a request to remove or alter your digital archives. (This often occurs in cases when people are requesting removal of arrest reports, but there are other such situations as well.) If you take an absolutist position — that you’ll always remove content when requested or that you’ll never remove published content — your choice is clear and simple. You might, however, want to consider a middle ground: Seldom remove archived content but consider changes or updates on some occasions.

Ethical principles

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics calls on journalists to seek truth and report it. When a news organization has done that, you should generally leave those reports available in whatever platforms you have published them. However, the code also calls on journalists to minimize harm, so when people tell you of continuing harm that your reports may cause, you should respectfully listen to their concerns and consider whether a change is justified. Poynter’s 2013 Guiding Principles for Journalists say that journalists should “Seek publishing alternatives that minimize the harm that results from your actions and be compassionate and empathetic toward those affected by your work.” When people inform you of harm, you should consider appropriate alternatives.

Ethical principles that should be weighed in these decisions include a mix of reporting the truth, minimizing harm, being transparent and being responsive to the community. Where these principles conflict, you should consider how you might handle specific situations, developing a firm policy or at least some helpful guidelines.

Here are guidelines for considering alternatives in situations where you might consider — or be asked to consider — removing content from your online archives.

Arrests, criminal charges

Some of the most common requests news organizations receive are for removing archived stories about arrests or other unflattering news from long ago. A strong basic policy would be that you don’t remove published content from your digital archives, but that you want archives to be accurate, complete and up-to-date, so you will update or correct archived content, including headlines.

In considering requests to remove accurate information from public archives, you should consider not only the person’s interest in suppressing the content but also the public’s interest in knowing the information. Circumstances will guide the decision, so learn about the circumstances and act appropriately. Here are situations you might encounter and suggested responses:

Expungement: If proper and complete documentation is produced that shows an arrest was expunged from a person’s record, you should consider whether that is grounds to remove the charge from your website. Exceptions might be if the charge involves someone prominent or if there is any suggestion of improper influence in the decision to expunge the record. You also might decide you should not delete stories about valid convictions that are later expunged from the public record for good behavior. In many jurisdictions, public records practices do not bind news media.

Dismissal: If proper and complete documentation is produced that a charge was dismissed, you could amend the original item to add that update, but not remove the record from the site. If the person is named in the headline, you might also update the headline to say that the charge was dismissed. You might consider whether to add a note saying when the item was updated and what the original headline said.

Acquittal: If proper and complete documentation is produced that a person was acquitted, a good response would be to amend the original item to add that update, without removing the arrest record from the site. If the person is named in the headline, you should also update the headline to note the acquittal. Again, it would be a good idea to add a note that says when the item was updated and what the original headline said. If you have something such as a crime database that includes only people convicted of crimes, the item should be removed from the database.

Error: If the original report was inaccurate, the preferred approach is to correct it and note the error. But in an extreme case where the corrected story would still be damaging to the person named, this might justify deleting the story or removing the name. Even when taking the extreme act of completely deleting a story, a message should be put up at that URL explaining why the story was removed.

Same name: If an archived story results in confusion because of people with the same name, it might be a good idea on request (after you’ve confirmed the facts) to specify who the suspect or criminal isn’t.

Home sales

A valid reason to remove a home sales record from your site would be if a security issue could be documented that involves, for example, a law enforcement officer, stalking victim, domestic abuse victim, etc.

Removing content from social media sites

Some guidelines your organization might consider on changing or deleting social media content:

Tweets: Tweets cannot be edited once posted (although Twitter might add that feature in the future). Many organizations choose to acknowledge an error in a subsequent tweet rather than to delete tweets. But because a tweet is most often seen by itself in users’ timelines and in retweets, rather than in sequence with the correcting tweet, you should consider whether some situations might justify deleting a tweet:

When you delete a tweet, an ethic of transparency would be to say you deleted it and offer an explanation, especially if you are correcting a factual error. Because of legal implications, do not identify a tweet as potentially libelous. “Inappropriate” is a better explanation.

For a small error, such as a typo, you could delete a tweet if you see it immediately (within seconds) and if no one has yet replied or retweeted. Delete immediately, tweet the corrected version immediately and acknowledge what you’ve done. If you don’t catch the error swiftly, especially if people are engaging with it, it’s better to leave the error and acknowledge in a subsequent tweet.

Facebook: You can edit posts. If you do more than fix simple typos, you should add a note telling how you’ve updated, corrected or altered the post. Many organizations prefer editing to deleting. If an extreme situation prompts you to delete (such as those outlined in the Twitter section), acknowledge the deletion in a separate post.

Photos and videos

Consider whether there would be any circumstances in which you would delete published photos or videos. A possible reason would be learning that a photo or video was a fake. Even in that extreme scenario, it might be a good idea to provide an explanation.

Sometimes photos posted as part of an ordinary news story take on a new, and unpleasant, life online. For example, a photograph of a young woman accompanying a routine feature story could become the subject of ugly sexual speculation on social networks or questionable websites. A request by the woman to have the photo removed may be worth respecting.

Alternatives, consultation and influence

You should consider developing guidelines that will help you make decisions in most cases. But as special circumstances present themselves, don’t let guidelines force bad decisions or substitute for good judgment.

If you’re unsure about whether circumstances justify an exception to your policy or guidelines, consider asking an outside source, such as an ethics expert in a journalism organization or a professor who teaches journalism ethics. Consider writing an explanation of your decision. If you can’t justify the decision to your community, that may be an indication it’s not a good decision.

As special cases present themselves, consider whether there are creative alternatives to actually deleting a story. For many circumstances, updating a headline (and noting that you’ve done so) will preserve the archived story but present an accurate headline and story to people searching someone on search engines. Some unusual situations might justify blocking a story from search engine indexing but keeping it online, so it’s still available in site search and links to it continue to work.

If you allow a person’s connections or influence be part of the consideration, you may be jeopardizing your credibility. An advertiser, powerful community figure or friend, or relative of the editor or publisher should get no more consideration than anyone else. The primary factors in your decisions should be whether the information is accurate and how the information harms a person, not who the person is.

The main author of this section is Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University. It is adapted from guidelines he wrote for Digital First Media newsrooms.

See also the modules in this project on “Accuracy,” “Corrections” and “Social Networks.”