Quiz Time: What if you were the ‘Un-Publisher’?

Unlike libraries full of books, papers and other actual documents, material in a digital archive is relatively simple to alter. From that fact has emerged an ethical question for newsrooms: When should a story in the archive be corrected to reflect new information? Or even, when should a story in the digital archive be deleted – “unpublished,” as the expression goes?

Editors more and more frequently face those questions from people who have been identified in stories about arrests, foreclosures or other behavior they’d like to put behind them. Tired of seeing that old, embarrassing information pop up with their names in a Google search, they ask that the original story be expunged. Or maybe the charges were dismissed and that went unreported, so the Google search is reinforcing something that is no longer accurate.

My short answer, which is consistent with the practice of Stars and Stripes and most other newsrooms, is that stories should almost never be “unpublished.” But fairness sometimes dictates that a newsroom update a story or annotate the archive to reflect relevant new information. That’s the subject of my column in this weekend’s Stars and Stripes.

Consider the following made-up scenarios a quiz. You be the “Un-Publisher.”

A story in 2009 reported that a commander was relieved for tolerating a climate in which sexual harassment was rampant. It’s been five years, and that story keeps getting in the way of the former commander’s civilian career. Unpublish or not? 

A 2013 story reported an airman’s comments in support of an Aryan Nation rally he attended. He’s now embarrassed about what he said and asks that his comments be taken out of the archived story. Unpublish or not?

A 2012 story reported that a Navy officer was court-martialed in connection with a contracting scam. Six months later, the court found that he was uninvolved in the scam and dismissed the charges. But that outcome was never reported. Unpublish or not? 

You get the idea.

Stripes’ newsroom will soon publish its guidelines for responding to such “unpublishing” requests. I’ll be interested in readers’ comments.

In the meantime, here’s a link to some “best practices” suggested in a report produced by the Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, for the Associated Press Managing Editors. The report itself is good reading on the subject, and is regularly cited in discussions of how newsroom should respond to these requests. 

Maybe it will help with that quiz.

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Ernie Gates

Stars and Stripes ombudsman

As a journalist for more than three decades, Ernie Gates has been a reporter, editor and news executive, including 10 years leading the enterprising print and digital newsroom of Tribune Co.’s Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va.

News for and about service members, families and veterans has always been a key focus in Hampton Roads, where every branch of the armed services has a significant presence.

As vice president and editor, Ernie was responsible for all news, business, features and sports coverage and oversaw the editorial page. He also wrote the daily Feedback column, responding to readers’ questions and comments about coverage, news judgment, journalism ethics, taste and other issues. Representing the paper as a public speaker, he focused on News Values and Credibility.

He is a past president of the Virginia Press Association and a past chairman of Virginia Associated Press Newspapers. 

Since leaving the Daily Press in 2010, Ernie has stayed active in public affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School.  He is also serves on the Coalition Partners Advisory Panel of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Ernie and his wife, Betsy, live in Williamsburg, Va. They have three adult children.

Ernie Gates can be reached at ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil or (202) 761-0587.

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The ombudsman

Congress created the post in the early 1990’s to ensure that Stars and Stripes journalists operate with editorial independence and that Stars and Stripes readers receive a free flow of news and information without taint of censorship or propaganda.

The ombudsman serves as an autonomous watchdog of Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment rights. Anyone who fears those rights are imperiled should alert the ombudsman.

The ombudsman is also the readers’ representative to the newsroom. Readers who think a journalistic issue or event was misrepresented or ignored or who feel complaints were not properly addressed by Stripes reporters or editors should contact the ombudsman.