Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
A lawyer who demanded we unpublish a crime story about his client’s criminal history.
A former writer, now on the job hunt, who wanted opinion pieces they wrote over a decade ago removed.
A student whose name had been engraved into a bathroom stall on campus only to see those derogatory comments show up years later in a column still searchable online.
These are just a few examples of requests to remove content that I received as the former editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald, a nonprofit, independent student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But there were many more requests that kept me up at night.
According to Unpublishing the News, “unpublishing” is a set of challenges that arise from requests to take down, obscure or change accurate information published by a news organization.
During my year-long tenure as editor-in-chief, we received more requests to take down articles than I can remember. Some were clear-cut, but most of them had competing ethical implications that felt daunting to tackle as a junior studying journalism (who was just trying to keep our newsroom afloat).
So I went looking for resources. I searched and searched but, as it turns out, I am far from alone when it comes to unanswered questions about unpublishing – in student and professional newsrooms.
Deborah Dwyer, a researcher who has studied unpublishing since 2016, knows the issue of unpublishing well – and the media industry’s reluctance to publicly address it.
In a 2018 survey of journalists, Dwyer found nearly 90% of newsrooms had a policy about unpublishing. However, just over half of newsrooms said their policy was not written down or documented. About 18% of newsrooms had a documented policy, but it was only shared internally with staff members. Only a small fraction of newsrooms – 10% of respondents – actually shared their policy with the public.
“It (unpublishing) was kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell, dirty little secret,” she said.
Conversely, concrete unpublishing policies are a strong desire among the general public. A 2020 survey by Dwyer of U.S. adults found over 80% thought news organizations should have guidelines about what information can be removed from their digital archives.
As most industry leaders grapple with the best ways to address unpublishing behind closed doors, many student journalists are left without a clear model of how to handle difficult unpublishing requests. To further complicate the issue, student newsrooms face additional challenges with unpublishing that professional newsrooms do not have to consider.
“When it comes to unpublishing, I think the hardest thing is that there is no standard that an advisor or an enterprising student can go (to) online,” said Chris Evans, the former president of the College Media Association. “That’s not particularly helpful to a student journalist who is just learning the trade.
“Unpublishing is not just a journalistic challenge. It’s a leadership challenge – both in the moment and industry-wide.”
The “wicked problem” of unpublishing
The decision to take down or keep a story online can have serious implications for individuals making the requests and the newsrooms who receive them. Unpublishing requests can arise from a number of different concerns, such as privacy, connections to past controversies, threats to reputations or traumatic experiences.
Dwyer calls unpublishing a “wicked problem” – meaning there are so many different and complex facets to the issue that it seems impossible to solve.
In her early conversations with newsrooms, Dwyer said many editors thought of unpublishing as an “anathema” to journalism, in which many journalists view themselves as writing the “first draft of history.” But in the digital age, where news does not fade away with the daily paper and audiences have a growing influence over news production decisions, Dwyer said journalists have a responsibility and an imperative to address unpublishing questions.
“This is another way that external actors can influence editorial decisions, and that is uncomfortable for journalists,” Dwyer said. “And it ought to be uncomfortable for us too because if not handled appropriately, it can be a major problem.”
A lack of guidance and transparency around unpublishing is what led Dwyer to found the Unpublishing the News project – a resource and forum for newsrooms to tackle the question of unpublishing and forge a path forward to creating comprehensive policies.
Dwyer breaks down unpublishing into two parts: post-publication and pre-publication practices. Most commonly associated with unpublishing, post-production practices include actions such as removing an article, de-indexing a link in a search engine, anonymizing a name or updating content.
It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do. There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.Deborah Dwyer
Pre-publication practices refer to steps a news organization takes before an article is online. A large portion of pre-publication considerations focus on crime reporting, including questions about what crimes outlets choose to cover and how reporters follow up on crime stories. For example, the Associated Press announced last summer that they would no longer name suspects in minor crimes.
“It’s rethinking for the digital age some of these things that we have just pulled from the print era into the digital era without giving them a whole lot of thought,” Dwyer said. “Unpublishing requests run the gamut, but a lot of this is primarily focused around crime.”
In her recently published dissertation, Dwyer found college publications actually fare better than their professional counterparts in having unpublishing policies in place. However, college publications were also more likely to have a hardline stance on unpublishing – and the answer is often never.
“It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do,” Dwyer said. “There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.”
Since unpublishing remains a gray area in the professional industry, Dwyer said student journalists likely believe a black-and-white policy is the way professionals handle these questions. In turn, professional organizations – who tend to claim they never unpublish despite internal exceptions – may give students a “false expectation” that they never unpublish stories even though they do.
Student publications face unique unpublishing challenges
Like the professional industry, the pressures of unpublishing on student publications are constantly increasing. Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, has seen inquiries about takedown requests from students increase every year.
“Every news media organization really needs to be prepared for it,” Hiestand said. “It’s just part of doing business these days.”
In addition to being less experienced and resourced than seasoned editors, certain unpublishing issues bubble up in student publications that professionals do not have to grapple with, said Evans, who has been a college newspaper adviser since 2004.
For example, university and student government officials may attempt to interfere with students’ unpublishing decisions. In an anecdotal experiment that Evans has run with dozens of student journalists, he asks them if they would take down an article if the university president told them to. He estimates that about 80% say yes.
This imaginary scenario has real-world consequences. Evans recounted one experience where student journalists wrote a negative story about a university employee who immediately launched a “pressure campaign” against the publication to take down the article. Evans said the students eventually removed the story because the employee’s stream of unrelenting emails hurt their recruitment efforts.
Students also face legal pressure to take down articles. One of the key cases to land in court about unpublishing stemmed from a student publication. Evans said the intimidation alone can be enough to convince students to remove the article.
The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right? And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.Mike Hiestand
Students should know there is a silver lining on the legal side of this debate. As long as the content was accurate when it was published, Hiestand said there is not much legal standing for lawsuits related to libel or defamation.
“The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right?” Hiestand said. “And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.”
Another quick trick to assuage legal concerns is to check when the article was published. In most states, Hiestand said defamation cases have a statute of limitations of one to three years.
However, this does not make the ethical deliberations behind unpublishing any easier.
This is exemplified in another unique challenge for student publications: getting requests from former writers themselves. Former student writers may request to remove an inflammatory opinion piece or story that is hurting their job prospects, or perhaps a now-professional journalist finds an article they wrote in college does not reflect their best work.
Hiestand, Evans and Dwyer agree that requests from former writers carry complicated implications and questions for student newsrooms. Hiestand noted an additional unintended consequence of strict unpublishing policies: chilled speech among student writers.
“I would hear students talk about how they were reluctant to write a piece about legalizing marijuana or something like that,” Hiestand said. “They might strongly believe in that, but there was some concern (of) how that might come back to bite them in the butt.”
Steps to take for students
While there are few clear-cut unpublishing decisions – and examples of policies in the professional world are scarce – there are some steps student publications can take to address the daunting issue of unpublishing in their newsrooms. Here is a guide compiled throughout the reporting of this story to help students handle individual requests and create comprehensive policies.
Unlike other journalistic industry standards, Dwyer doubts all newsrooms will come to agreement on unpublishing guidelines – but the key ingredient she thinks every policy needs is transparency. To obtain transparency in unpublishing, Dwyer said newsrooms should have written policies that are accessible to the public. Transparent policies should also explain who in the newsroom decides what content is unpublished and how content is updated or removed.
Dywer notes there are equity considerations with transparency. Without a public policy detailing the process behind unpublishing decisions, it is easy to exacerbate inequities between who does and does not get “digital redemption.”
“Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.”
Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.Deborah Dwyer
Another consideration Dwyer and Hiestand proposed is for news organizations to consider front-end, pre-publication policies based on the news value of leaving certain content online forever. For instance, Dwyer said news organizations could determine that the value of reporting on minor crime is to inform the community and decide that type of content only needs to remain indexed for a year – meaning the article would remain online, but it would be obscured and harder to find based on personal identifiers, such as names.
“By making some of these decisions on the front end about life cycles of content, it allows you to do that to where it’s much more equitable, and you take a lot of the potential bias out of the process,” Dwyer said.
Hiestand encourages student media to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” policy and weigh various editorial and ethical considerations in their unpublishing decisions. In his view, age is an especially important consideration for students to take into account. He suggests that young people shouldn’t be given a “free pass” for past behavior but perhaps some “breathing room.”
“If a college kid is busted for underage drinking or something like that, and you put that in your news article, and that can be searched and pulled up 30 to 40 years years later or whatever, you know, how valuable is that? Is that really serving any sort of purpose?” he said.
Evans’ advice for students is to look at the unpublishing policies that already exist and talk with community members – especially those from marginalized groups – about what a good policy would be.
Evans and Dwyer also recommend students look into how the European Union addresses some of these issues through “Right to Be Forgotten” legislation, which provides private citizens the ability to petition search engines like Google to deoptimize certain parts of their online presence.
Despite the challenges, unpublishing is an issue journalists – especially young ones – cannot shy away from.
“It’s really thinking these things through on the front-end and being exposed to them, which is why discussion in the professional world and in classrooms is so important – so you have heard of these things before,” Dwyer said. “You didn’t get that first request as a student editor.”
Read and bookmark our guide to creating an unpublishing policy.
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