Elizabeth Zwerling is an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.
By the time I got the e-mail from the spokeswomen for a major credit card company asking me to delete her quotes from an article we’d run almost a year before, I was skeptical. She had already contacted the reporter with various versions of her concern: she’d been speaking off the record, the reporter must have confused her with another source, the quotes were wrong. A man “representing” her had called the managing editor urging him to omit the quotes from the archive. “I think he was a lawyer,” the managing editor told me at the time. (He wasn’t.)
I’m faculty adviser for the Campus Times, a 2,000-circulation weekly newspaper of the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County. My staff of undergraduates occasionally gets things wrong and corrects them. But this was a solid story by a conscientious reporter, puzzled by the content, urgency and timing of the source request.
Most likely the credit card spokeswoman – a woman a Google search revealed is widely quoted by Reuters and CNN, among others – had searched herself online and found our story about college students and credit card debt, in which she spoke openly, if off-message, about the age group’s unchecked spending habits.
Easy access to online news archives is one of the Web’s amazing benefits for journalists – or anyone wanting background on people or events. But the fact that last year’s or the last decade’s news stories are just a mouse-click away means that anything one says to a reporter – perhaps in a moment of vulnerability – can be entered into a very visible long-lasting record. The visibility of this record, its effects and what to do about those, if anything, is a contentious topic among editors and ethicists across the nation, as the sense – and the reality – of new media is that stories live long past their press dates.
The credit card spokeswoman scenario was fairly easy to resolve: The reporter had kept her notes, we reviewed them against the archived story and the now 2-year-old story remains unchanged in our archive. The spokeswoman’s discomfort with the story, particularly given her profession, I concluded, did not come close to a threshold for altering the permanent record.
A few months earlier a colleague shared a similar scenario, albeit with a more dramatic request. In late 2005 he was asked to alter the archive of a 1999 story about same-sex couples by one of the sources profiled in the La Verne Magazine. “She said she wasn’t gay anymore,” said George Keeler, journalism professor and magazine adviser. “It was a painful thing, but I wrote her back and said I wasn’t going to erase (her past),” The story, now eight years old, come up first when the source’s name is typed into Google and Yahoo!’s engines.
“It’s not like it used to be when clippings would just molder in the morgue of the newspaper office,” said Craig Whitney, standards editor for the New York Times, who said the Times frequently fields requests to alter archives.
“A source will call saying the paper reported an arrest, then didn’t report the dismissal of the case,” Whitney said. “We can’t go re-report the who (sometimes 20-year-old) story and we can’t just take their word for it: ‘The judge threw out the case.’ ‘Where’s the judge?’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Where’s the record of the case?’ ‘In some archive in Fort Dix.’ We recognize it’s frustrating. We can’t do anything.
“Sometimes it’s a case where somebody is embarrassed about a part of their past that they don’t deny, which wasn’t so prominent (before online archives and Google),” Whitney said.
The New York Times has received requests from divorced couples to remove archived stories about their marriages, said Leonard Apcar, former editor-in-chief of NYTimes.com.
“We’ve always had a sense that the archive is historical,” Whitney said. “What’s changed is now anybody can consult it from home. We haven’t figured out what to do, if anything. We’ve had some meetings and we’ll have some more to… figure out something to do that’s ethically responsible, that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the archives, but addresses the need for clarification, elaboration,” Whitney said adding that the Times has never deleted anything from its online archives. “I doubt if we ever would. The question is, is there something else we can do that falls short of rewriting history?”
The answer to that question seems to depend on the story, the publication and a variety of circumstances, which like the medium, are still evolving.
Editors at the Pasadena (Calif.) Weekly felt they found a fair solution when in 2006, they decided to remove the name of an ex-con from an archived story, six months after it came out in print.
Joe Piasecki, the paper’s deputy editor who also reported the story, had covered a protest at San Quentin Prison a week before the execution of Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, where he interviewed a man who said he’d been in prison with Williams. Piasecki researched the man’s background through the Oakland Tribune’s (offline) coverage of the man’s 1998 trial and found the man had been charged with raping and sodomizing his former girlfriend, and convicted of assault. Piasecki included that information in the story along with the man’s claim that he was innocent. “I’d called the Tribune library (to make sure) he was who he said he was,” Piasecki said.
The story ran Dec. 8, 2005, in the Weekly, its sister paper the Ventura County Reporter, and on the Reporter’s Web site. At the time the story went up, the Pasadena Weekly didn’t have a functioning Web archive, so the source’s call went to the Ventura, Calif., newsroom first. Then Piasecki and Pasadena Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich were consulted.
“Our first reaction was ‘no don’t change it’,” Piasecki said. “I tend to say that unless (the reporter) screwed up, don’t change it. What’s true is true.”
Piasecki said his publication made an exception here because the man wasn’t familiar with the Internet, and because his quotes toward the end of a story about someone else, were not critical to its “material essence.” The man had served two years at San Quentin and remembered seeing Williams there; his quotes added color to the story, Piasecki said. The quotes are still in the Ventura newspaper’s online archive, only the man’s name was removed.
“The guy said every time he applied for a job they Googled his name and this was the only hit,” Piasecki said. “We took his name out so he could move on with his life.”
“I didn’t see any harm,” Uhrich said, adding this is the only time the Weekly has edited an archived story beyond correcting specific factual errors and taking offline a guest editorial he learned after publication was largely plagiarized. (The paper’s own Web site hosts archives dating back to January 2006.)
At the New York Times, even plagiarized stories remain as part of the permanent record. Those by ex-Times reporter Jayson Blair still appear intact in the Times archives with editor’s notes appended to the articles.
“The Jayson Blair stories are going to (stay) in the archives,” Whitney said. “We can’t pretend he was never here.”
Because Internet databases do not discriminate in what they pick up and store, however, a ProQuest search of a Jayson Blair story with plagiarized sections called up the story without the editor’s notes.
Despite the timeless nature of online postings, laws that protect news outlets have not changed. No matter how emphatic or justified a source’s complaint may be, any threat to take legal action against the reporter or news organization after the one-to-two-year statute of limitations for libel law is an idle threat, said Roger Myers, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.
Ethically, however, dealing with source requests to alter online archives is increasingly complicated, and as with just about every aspect of online journalism, still evolving.
When a story, column or even a reader response to a story is posted online then transferred to the publication’s archive, “it’s a matter of record,” said Robert Steele, a scholar of journalism ethics and values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “To change it would change a piece of history.”
If editors start removing some stories or parts of stories from archives, readers will begin to wonder what else is missing, Steele said.
And yet Steele, who advises newsroom leaders on a variety of ethical issues, acknowledges that in the rapidly changing media landscape, there are no absolutes.
“If it can be proven that the material did not come from the person whose name is attached, that would be a reason to take something down,” he said. “If it is substantially inaccurate, that would be a reason to correct it and in a rare case take it down.”
Or, Steele added, if a source could make a convincing argument that the story’s accessibility online poses a “profound and immanent threat to their well-being,” that might be a case to consider altering or deleting it from the record. Though he emphasized that these would be rare exceptions.
In the rare case when an editor does change or delete a story from the archive, there is no guarantee the original version of the story won’t come up in a Google search. As Paul McAfee, director of interactive operations at the Press Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif., explained: “The major search engines crawl the news Web sites on a regular basis. They could pull up an erroneous story and ‘cache’ it in their archives. “Hopefully they will pick up the correction,” he said. Though he added that it’s likely that both the original and the updated version of the story will come up in a search.
There are formal request processes to have items removed from Google and the other search engines, but there is no guarantee their decision-makers will honor the request. Under federal law, “Internet entities that host other people’s content are not liable for that content.” Myers said.
While McAfee said policy at the Press Enterprise is to not alter any accurate news archive, he recently helped a reader who’d posted offensive comments on pe.com‘s message board, then wanted the comments deleted.
“Someone wrote a comment that sounded really racist, then a few months later they saw the light and changed their opinion,” McAfee said. When the poster asked McAfee to remove the comments from the message board, he agreed to. Unlike its editorial content, postings on the publication’s electronic message board are eventually purged automatically, he said. Because they are generated by the public and not by the newspaper’s editorial department, these message boards are not subject the publication’s editorial policies, McAfee said.
“I wrote (the poster) back, ‘It’s off our site.’ They wrote back ‘yes but it’s still cashed in Google.’ The Google spiders picked it up, it was stuck in Google’s cache. The person asked me to intercede with Google. I sent them the Web address and a form for Google. I didn’t do it for them,” McAfee said. “We disclaim any responsibility for anything on our message boards.”
Letters to the editor, on the other hand, are different from message board postings when it comes to online archives, editors say.
“We’ve had many experiences where letter writers, who espouse some wild or provocative opinion, want the letter taken off the Web years later,” said Clint Brewer, executive editor of the City Paper in Nashville, Tenn., and the Society of Professional Journalists national president-elect. But letters are also part of the historical record, he said.
Brewer said that while the landscape has changed dramatically, at this point newsroom leaders have a long-standing set of standard for accuracy and preserving the historical record based on the print journalism model. “It’s not apples to apples (but) that’s a logical place to start,” he said.
McAfee said he hopes the visibility and permanence of the online record – and the fact that even stories subsequently edited for accuracy may live online alongside the uncorrected versions – will make journalists take their job of getting it right more seriously than ever.
Whitney believes such visibility and permanence will affect sources: “I think that the arrival of YouTube and Internet and the fact that images and text last forever means that actions have lasting consequences. It’s more important than it ever has been for people before they do something (to consider the) consequences.”