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University of Wisconsin–Madison

CREATING AN UNPUBLISHING POLICY

Black computer screen with a small cursor shown in the middle of it.

2022-23 fellow Erin Gretzinger prepared this resource guide while reporting her story for the Center for Journalism Ethics, “Lack of industry guidance on ‘unpublishing’ practices leaves student journalists in the dark.

Creating an unpublishing policy can feel like a daunting task, however, frameworks and helpful tools can provide a roadmap. Below are some resources that can serve as a guide to drafting a well-rounded policy, but remember: unpublishing scenarios are usually unique and often must be managed on a case-by-case basis, so acknowledging this uncertainty is also part of the process. Having a policy will ultimately not answer all unpublishing questions, but it is a necessary place to start in tackling the issue with a set of ground rules to answer these questions. 

Unpublishing the News

Deborah Dwyer

This website provides information about research, resources, debates and policy examples related to unpublishing. Here are some key links that may help you develop your own unpublishing policy:

  • Unpublishing Presentation for the Missouri Press Association: View a presentation done by Dwyer that walks through important questions and considerations regarding unpublishing policies for newsrooms. 
  • Books & Academic Articles: Check out the leading research and academic material regarding unpublishing. 
  • Editor’s Forum: Utilize this forum to ask questions your newsroom may have about unpublishing and tap into a network of journalists asking similar questions (registration for an account is free)
  • Unpublishing the News Blog: Read about a variety of different discussions surrounding unpublishing to get a better sense of different considerations behind these policies. 

Roadmap of Questions for Unpublishing Policies

Erin Gretzinger, Center for Journalism Ethics

Derived from an interview with Deborah Dwyer, the founder of Unpublishing the News, here is a roadmap of questions and things to consider while developing your newsrooms’ unpublishing practices. 

Takedown demands? Here is a roadmap of choices, rationale

Journalism Education Association/ Bowen

Through a mini series, JEA provides a framework, some key questions and actions to consider in weighing unpublishing requests.

The Right to Be Forgotten

General Data Protection Regulation, European Union

In the EU, the “Right to be Forgotten” legislation outlines how individuals can petition search engines to delist parts of their online presence under a certain set of guidelines. These considerations can be helpful in making judgements about content lifecycles and the ethical debates about what content should remain online. 

Here is some additional information compiled on Unpublishing the News related to the “Right to Be Forgotten” and obscuring content in the digital age:

If you must unpublish, here’s how to maintain credibility

Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute

This outlines steps to take post-unpublishing to explain to your audience why an article is no longer available. 

Sample communication: Denying an unpublishing request

Chattanooga Times Free Press, Unpublishing the News

This is a template from a newsroom about how to word a response to deny an unpublishing request

PROFESSIONAL POLICY EXAMPLES

Compiled from the Unpublishing the News repository, here are some diverse examples of professional newsroom policies from a variety of viewpoints.

  • Removal of BBC online content: takes into consideration a variety of factors in removal via a comprehensive unpublishing guide that balances harm and public interest concerns

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

Legal considerations are often central and top of mind when unpublishing requests come in – especially for student newsrooms who are less experienced or lack the resources to evaluate legal challenges.* Here are some resources about how to navigate the legal playing field of unpublishing.

Responding to takedown demands (Student Press Law Center): This is a comprehensive guide that goes over various legal considerations such as defamation and copyright concerns regarding unpublishing requests. 

  • Review the statute of limitation for defamation in your state. This can be helpful in determining whether a lawsuit threat could be brought to court. 
  • For questions about copyright (which may be relevant in the case of a former student writer asking to remove their content), you can also reference the SPLC copyright handbook
  • An SPLC quick answer to legal concerns for a takedown requests

Legal considerations for responding to takedown demands (Journalism Education Association, Bowen): key questions and a step-by-step process to evaluate legal claims related to unpublishing requests

*Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand notes that as long as the article was accurate when it was published, there is little standing for a lawsuit. Read more here

ALTERNATIVES TO UNPUBLISHING

Another key way to tackle unpublishing requests is to find ways to meet the needs of the request without actually removing the article. Here are some resources that outline different ways newsrooms have approached alternative approaches to removal.

Alternatives to Unpublishing (Deborah Dwyer, Unpublishing the News): There are many different ways to handle unpublishing requests, so see what suggestions Dwyer has on other routes besides removing content

5 Ways News Organizations Respond to ‘Unpublishing’ Requests (Mallary Jean Tenore, Poynter):  Beyond taking down an article, see how other news organizations address the concerns behind unpublishing requests without actually removing the full articles.

CASE STUDIES

Pulled from the Unpublishing the News website, here are a few helpful case studies that outline some different scenarios – real-world and theoretical – about how to handle unpublishing requests. 

Should Our Past Follow Us Forever Online? (Deborah Dwyer): Review a college publication case regarding unpublishing that actually went to court. This example includes a series of discussion questions to unpack this situation. 

Unpublishing scenarios: What would you do? (Kathy English): Following a report about the state of unpublishing in newsrooms in 2009, a list of theoretical unpublishing incidents were compiled to illustrate typical questions that arise. 

CBC Radio Canada Ombudsman Review (CBC Radio): The CBC Radio Canada Ombudsman, which helps handle complaints made to the station, publicly responded to an unpublishing request regarding a women’s police encounter.