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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.

By Marc Fisher  | 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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I agree with you in cases like this ... but what if the original story had been retracted? Would you "unpublish" a story that later proved to be false, like if the two men had been accused in error?

Posted by: bermanator34 | April 27, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Good question. Our policy and practice would be to correct the initial story and leave the original text as is. But you could certainly come up with a scenario in which the original story was so wildly and thoroughly wrong -- and harmful to those mentioned in it -- that the only responsible action would be to unpublish it. That's why it's not a 100 percent ironclad rule -- if someone's life is endangered by a story, for example, there have been rare occasions in which unpublishing was justified.

Posted by: Marc Fisher | April 27, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

What's your take on this, Marc?

"The entire episode speaks to [The Washington Post]'s inability to graduate from Web 101. A lot of news organizations---this one included---treat their blog work like the inviolate, sacred space that it has become. You don't just take down a post because it pisses someone off, especially someone within the organization. And if you edit or change or delete or remove or alter a post in any way, you make that plain to the reader. To this moment, the edited Turque post contains no alert that the original has been bowdlerized. The subtext here is that, Hey, it's just a blog post---it's not the paper. You can take it down, pass it around, whatever."

Posted by: corones | April 27, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that you're holding on a little tightly to what is "published". On the internet, blogs go up & down and web pages disappear all the time. Try to show some consideration for a private person and take down what you wrote.

Posted by: dcombs001 | April 27, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Yeah I have to say I had the same reaction to this as it seems corones did: the first thing I thought about was how the Washington Post will make non-trivial alterations to online versions of stories with no visible indication that it ever happened.

I'm somewhat inclined to find that even worse than removing a post (can we stop with this "unpublishing" nonsense as if that's a word?) because a removed post makes it obvious what's happened when you try to get to it later. An in-place edit makes it much harder to determine what's happened.

In the WaPo's defense, it's not like they're alone in this. My non-exhaustive check of other newspapers show that it's how most of them handle updated AP stories - the new one gets slotted into the old one's space and nobody is ever the wiser. That may be somewhat nice from a user experience standpoint - no 9 versions of the same piece - but it's pretty crappy for transparency.

Over at We Love DC we compromise by making anything more serious than a grammar or spelling error obvious as a change by using strike-through or notations. If WCP and our volunteer blog can hold up to this level of transparency I don't see why WaPo can't.

Posted by: DonWhiteside | April 27, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Subject: Fw: We haven't seen nothin' yet

Sent by Retired Vice Admiral Bob Scarborough, of Arlington, Va.

"I wanted to give you all some disturbing information on our wonderful president. I work with the Catch-A-Dream Foundation which provides hunting and fishing trips to children with life-threatening illnesses. This past weekend we had our annual banquet / fundraiser event in Starkville . "As a part of our program, we had scheduled Sgt. 1st Class Greg Stube, a highly decorated U.S. Army Green Beret and inspirational speaker who was severely injured while deployed overseas and didn't have much of a chance for survival to come. Greg is stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC and received permission from his commanding officer to come speak at our function. Everything was on go until Obama made a policy that NO U.S. SERVICEMAN CAN SPEAK AT ANY FAITH-BASED PUBLIC EVENTS ANYMORE. Needless to say, Greg had to cancel his speaking event with us.. Didn't know if anyone else was aware of this new policy. Wonder what kind of news we all will
> receive next. You're just starting to see the Obamanation. Your religion is on the list next. I don't know about you, but this makes me furious.

What a rotten thing to do by the "commander-in-chief". And I'm afraid we ain't seen nothin yet!.......It is sad when the biggest threat to America is our own muslim president.

Posted by: truthful2 | April 27, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

We used to have this issue at Salon all the time. In the 5 years or so of Web publishing that preceded Google people felt free to say all sorts of things that they later regretted. Google would surface these statements in our pages and the readers would contact us and beg to have the references removed. We'd do so when it was (a) not material to a story of significant public import and (b) there was a reasonable case to be made that keeping the information public would harm someone. In these cases we'd scrub the last name but leave the story in place otherwise.

In at least one very different situation we actually unpublished a major story when it became clear that there were major problems with it, and with the reporter involved. Of course the only way to do this ethically is to make note of it -- to tell your readers what you are doing and why. Otherwise it's disturbingly Orwellian.

Posted by: ScottARosenberg | April 27, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

How about if you unpublish/remove ignorant comments that have nothing to do with the article at hand. Or comments that are simply the perpetuation of urban legends and chain email spam.

And you don't even have to tell us about it, because it has NOTHING to do with the article.

The comment from 4:34 pm today is simply false. Check it out on snopes, factchecker, urbanlegends.about. Sheesh.

Posted by: AnneKerns | April 27, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Interesting name, truthful2, since you are perpetuating a year-old urban myth that is absolutely false.

Do you really think you're accomplishing anything by spreading lies?

Posted by: justkiddingdc | April 27, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

I agree...unpublishing shouldn't happen 9 out of 10 times. This guy just needs to be honest with perspective employers that he's had a checkered past, and deal with it. All he can do is not act stupid again, and prove that he's a good employee.

Posted by: akchild | April 28, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Though, I have to agree with some of the posters here...WaPo isn't always good about announcing when something has been amended. I've often seen it happen where people will make comments asking questions, or making judgements, then the article will get amended answering those questions or nullifying the judgments, and the posters just sound stupid for not having had that information earlier. Yet, the articles won't have any indication that they had been changed.

Posted by: akchild | April 28, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I bet you're thinking about 'unpublishing' this blog post about now...

As hinted at in some comments, The Post is good at talking about the theory of certain ethical issues but when it comes to down to it we have fairly strong examples of The Post acting contrary to your nicely written theories:

Spayd says she then pulled the item from the site, on the following grounds: "Where it went over is where it ascribed motive to Chancellor Rhee’s decision to speak to our editorial board and, more importantly, I don’t think that he should be challenging or seeming to assess the stances of our editorial board or questioning their integrity, and I think that that blog did that."

Posted by: sfmass | April 28, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

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