Is it ever ok to unpublish a story?
A few years ago, I wrote a column about a couple of guys who got into hot water at work because their employer found out about a dumb prank the gents had pulled at a bar one night.
The police decided that no crime was committed, and the men paid restitution to the bar. Life went on. Except that on the Interwebs, nothing ever really goes away.
So this week, I received an email from one of the men involved in that prank, asking that The Post remove from its web site any record of the original column, in hopes that this might then stop the story of the prank from showing up whenever anyone--say, a potential employer--did a search on this man's name.
I explained to the man that much as I sympathize with his desire to move on from a youthful misdeed, we cannot change the past.
In the print-only era, of course, this question would never have been posed. What was printed was printed, and anyone who wanted to search the microfilm could dredge up the unfortunate past of whomever they were looking into. (Once in a while, researchers would find, however, that someone very eager to alter the past had taken a scissor to an old newspaper or a roll of microfilm in a library collection.)
The web makes such searches infinitely easier, of course, and the truth is that we, or any web site, could unpublish a story in a matter of seconds. But that would do nothing to erase the many echos of that original column that exist all over the web--on search engines, blogs, other news sites, and so on.
More important, just because it is technically possible to unpublish a digital story in a way that was never possible in the ink-on-paper world does not make it right to do so. To be sure, this young man's life would be simpler if the record of his past dissolved. But once something is published, the ethical options are to leave it as is if it is accurate or correct the record if it was not. Disappearing it is a disservice to readers who should be able to trust that something that's been published is accurate or will be made so.
Unpublishing does occur in rare circumstances--when a story or blog post violates the paper's standards in some egregious way, or when a life is endangered. But a case like this one is not even close: Changing the record for the convenience of someone we've written about would be unfair to readers and would diminish the credibility of the newspaper.
That said, I see no reason to compound the man's anguish, so I am withholding from this post both his name and identifying details.
What's your view? Tell us in the comment board below.
| April 27, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
Categories: Hard choices, More on the story | Tags: news ethics, newspaper standards, unpublishing stories, web reputations
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