‘Unpublishing' is no longer unthinkable, but it’s mostly unacceptable

Ernie Gates, Stars and Stripes ombudsman


Readers ask me fairly often how to find a Stars and Stripes article from their time in uniform — a B-17 raid on Germany, a photograph from Korea, a mention of their unit in the Mekong Delta, or something more recent. I ordinarily send those readers to the Heritage Newspaper Archive, where for a reasonable fee they can search a database of more than 1 million Stripes pages from 1948 to 1999. Searches earlier than 1948 are much trickier, usually requiring eye-straining hours with microfilm.

Whether the search is simple or painstaking, the Stripes archive is a pretty remarkable historical record.

But sometimes the questions are not about what people want to find in the archive, but what they want to erase — less about nostalgia and more about remorse. In the interest of job-hunting, bank loans, security clearances or just plain embarrassment, people would like to “correct” the record of some of their moments in the spotlight.

In effect, they’d like to “unpublish” unflattering stories.

In the age of paper and ink, the idea would be preposterous. No one would — or could — clip out all the old stories from all the old newspapers. That part’s still true — but the digital archive is another thing. The fact that the digital record can be altered has made “unpublishing” a meaningful question in journalism ethics.

With the expansion of digital publishing, editors and publishers have increasingly gotten requests to “erase” material from their online archive. For the most part, and with good cause, they’ve refused. The underlying principle is that accurate, published stories are part of a historical record, and to tamper with that record risks the trust and credibility at the heart of their relationship with readers.

Of course, there are exceptions, and groups such as the Associated Press Managing Editors and others have suggested guidelines and best practices for making those decisions.

The leaders of the Stars and Stripes newsroom consulted those sources and others to formulate their own approach to “unpublishing.” As ombudsman, I’ve made suggestions and pointed to resources such as the APME report. Stripes will publish the result soon, and I’ll be interested to hear reactions from readers.

Meanwhile, here’s a quick take from my look at the draft and my talks with Editorial Director Terry Leonard and Web Manager Joe Gromelski.

As it should, and in keeping with the judgment of most newsrooms, the Stripes approach will lean hard against “unpublishing” a story that was accurate when it was published. If later events make the original story a materially incomplete account and unfair, then the solution will be to verify the new information and update the story or annotate the archive, rather than eliminate the original.

For example, a story about a commander being relieved for “lack of confidence in his ability to lead” after allegations of misconduct might require an update if a subsequent investigation results in his exoneration. In the normal course of reporting, such an update ought to be a standard follow-up story, prompted by a periodic “pop-up” alert in the reporter’s calendar. But that doesn’t always happen, and press releases about exonerations are scarcer than press releases about commanders being relieved. The story that allegations were made and the commander was relieved would still be accurate, but fairness would require that the record include the outcome.

In short: Fix it, don’t erase it.

There may be cases, but they will and ought to be rare, when the original story is altered in the archive. For instance, Leonard recalled a story identifying two Marines who were arrested overseas, but only one was eventually charged in a slow-moving judicial system. The identity of the Marine who was never charged was later removed from the story in the digital archive — and the fact that it was altered was noted on the story. That note is an important attempt to be transparent to readers, to communicate that such “amendments” to stories are rare and not done secretly.

Though Stripes’ approach will intentionally make it hard to “unpublish,” these will be judgment calls, as with most ethical choices. So it’s important that the decision not be left to one person, partly for a check and balance, but also because hearing multiple perspectives tends to yield fairer results. Stripes’ process will begin with the Web staff investigating and verifying new information, then making a recommendation to senior editors, who will make a decision. Appeals from that decision would go to the publisher. In some cases, legal advice would be required.

That process isn’t described yet in the draft, but it ought to be, as a matter of transparency.

Of course, amending or annotating the digital archive at Stripes or any other original publication doesn’t entirely correct the record in the broader digital world. Stories are routinely republished and re-archived by third parties, excerpted in other accounts, cached in older searches and on other websites and so on. That original version is still out there somewhere.

Or is it? What if the searching autobot looks the other way?

Just this week, the European Union’s top court ruled that people have a “right to be forgotten” — meaning that search engines, such as Google, which lost that court case, would be required to alter their search parameters on request so certain personal information is excluded. The court explicitly does not expect the information to be eradicated from its original source of publication, but the decision has editors and publishers worried that more such censorship is around the corner.

I expect that publicity about the EU’s Google case will spur the number of “unpublishing” requests at most newspapers, including Stripes. Having done the research and had the internal discussions necessary to develop and put its own guidelines in writing — and soon share them with readers — will make Stripes better prepared to meet those requests openly.

That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be happy with the decisions. But it does mean that Stripes is ready to balance competing values and make responsible judgments as it honors its commitment to accuracy and the historical record, respects and preserves the public’s right to know, and treats the people it writes about fairly.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.com, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. Ernie Gates’ blog can be found at here.

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