Balancing the Truth In Newsroom Policy
As more and more news sources publish and archive their articles online, publishers are increasingly asked by individuals to take down information that they believe paints them in an unflattering light. In a new article by Jasmine McNealy, assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and Laurence B. Alexander, ninth Chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, explore the ethics of “unpublishing” articles and create guidelines for news editors and curators. The article was published in the journal Digital Journalism.
With news online, articles that would have rapidly disappeared from memory are now available to the public through a quick Google search. This can create uncomfortable situations for people whose mistakes, indiscretions and personal information are now on display essentially forever. Asking publications to unpublish the information – and possibly threatening legal action if the articles aren’t removed – is becoming more typical.
This creates a difficult situation for editors and owners. On the one hand, it’s understandable that people do not want potentially damaging information available on news sites forever. On the other hand, making information about events accessible to the public is part of a news organization’s job. Taking information down when it contains no errors or inaccuracies seems to counter the role and ethics of information sharing.
The researchers suggest that editors should model their decisions on whether or not to unpublish an article on the “balance of interests” framework frequently used by the courts in free-speech cases. This framework says that unpublishing decisions should take into consideration the interest of the individual (in having the article removed to protect their safety, reputation and economic well-being) as well as the public (in having potentially important information available and accessible).
This balance will change depending on the information and the context surrounding it. For instance, information that could put a person in physical danger (such as their address) or cause them significant social harm (such as medical information) might tip the balance in favor of the person requesting unpublishing. Likewise, information that is of high importance to the public (such as reports of political corruption) might tip the balance in favor of keeping the article published.
The researchers point out that unpublishing might make future journalists hesitant to publish potentially important information in the first place. As such, editors must take care in making unpublishing decisions.
To help with this, the researchers offer three suggestions:
1. “Make the unpublishing policy available to readers in an attempt to lessen requests.”
2. “Remain cognizant of the duty of the press to report the truth, which may not always paint the news subject in a favorable light.”
3. “Create a policy against unpublication with exceptions for instances in which the individual making the request is at risk of possible harm.”
Having guidelines like this are important in protecting the integrity of the news as a source of information for the public. “The removal of identifying information from an archived article would seem…to be a change to the historical record,” the researchers explain. “More than this, it would appear to be a deviation from the ‘truth’ that reporters are admonished to report.”
Jasmine McNealy is an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication where she studies information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. Her research focuses on privacy, online media, and communities.