Unpublishing

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review concerns a request for CBC.ca to take a story off its website. While there was no violation of Journalistic Standards and Practices, I concluded CBC needs to address this issue in a larger way.

Many details of this review must remain vague for a reason: The complainant is asking CBC.ca to delete from its website a story involving her. Providing details in this review could compound her concerns.

In general outline, she brought information to CBC News about her distressing encounter with police. She was interviewed on CBC Radio and an online story was written about the incident.

She wrote CBC News in late 2011 to assert the online story has “caused me immeasurable embarrassment on a professional and personal level.” Her name is uncommon, so an online search of it produces the CBC.ca story as a top result. Rather than learn about her credentials, readers learn first about this incident.

She has not disputed the story’s accuracy, so she is not seeking a correction. Rather, she asked CBC News to “unpublish” the story from the website so it could no longer be found.

In correspondence December 21, a CBC News manager wrote: “While I appreciate your situation, it is CBC policy not to ‘unpublish’ archived stories. There are very few exceptions to that policy. Our stories are a matter of public record. We’d be happy to update the story if you have something new to add.” There have been developments since the initial story, but the complainant said she did not want CBC to create another story because she felt that would only deepen her problems. “The manner in which I am portrayed in the article is embarrassing and shameful. It is hurting my work life as well as my personal life. I truly feel re-victimized by this article and would like it removed from the web.” She asked for a review by this Office, and in correspondence with her it was agreed there would be an exception to the policy of identifying complainants. Further publicity is central to her concerns.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices generally prohibit unpublishing.

“Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public’s trust in our journalism.” The policy says there can be exceptions “where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.”

Conclusion

The game-changing nature of the Internet includes near-permanence of content in an accessible, searchable, seemingly infinite online archive. While this is a generally positive development, in my experience I am not sure its consequences are always fully appreciated by creators and contributors to content or by the audience that consumes it.

Many people generate a digital footprint that includes material they would wish away. Many are stung by the immediacy of online content that often spreads virally or perplexed by lingering effects they clearly did not expect. In more serious situations, reputations suffer and opportunities are lost, sometimes even without the subject’s knowledge, on the basis of this “long tail” of content others can view.

We are in a transitional, adaptive period into digital media with varying degrees of personal online presence, so some are more public than others in such uncomfortable exposure. More than likely in the next generation everyone will have some sort of digital record of the good, the bad and the ugly, and revelations that today raise eyebrows will someday be met with a shrug and a yawn. For the time being, though, there are those with these trails and those without them.

To varying degrees, too, media offer sympathy but not much redress of the situation. The iterative, changeable nature of online content readily accommodates journalistic corrections and updates, and most news organizations offer those involved in stories opportunities to set the record straight or chronicle new developments. They also naturally respond when there is a legal requirement to unpublish, such as a breach of a court-ordered publication ban on an identity or when it is necessary to update in order to ensure there is a proper legal defence.3 But they don’t go much further. Most organizations, including CBC News, are highly reluctant to scrape from their websites anything reported accurately. There is a principled reason in this: they view erasure as the equivalent of doctoring history. They worry that one exception to the rule will create a cascade of requests and that a distortion of the record will affect public trust and the transparency of their journalism. They wonder where the line could ever be drawn, whether only the squeaky-wheeled complainants would get the deletion grease, and why journalism’s creation of a public record should be technologically disposable.

That said, media also recognize that their reluctance to unpublish in certain situations can affect reputations — their subject’s and their own. It is unclear if the public supports their principled stand or views the enduring online content as enduring victimization.

Among most media, including CBC, there can be compassionate grounds to unpublish, particularly when a story could constitute a threat to personal safety. CBC has deleted content in several such instances. Just because it is deleted from a website doesn’t mean it is deleted from the Internet, so CBC has worked with such search engine firms as Google to deal with cached content to most effectively scrub it from view.

But that leaves a large body of content unaffected, a public-record bonanza increasingly apparent as the archive deepens with age. For journalists, this dividend is a research trove unthinkable only a decade ago.

Media have accepted this major technological benevolence with only minor practical adaptation and concession, and it is fair to say some subjects of the news view media’s ability to mine and indefinitely house data as an undue turn of events.

There are excellent reasons to keep many records of public interest searchable to improve journalism’s ongoing accuracy. It is also clear from the range of requests media receive for unpublishing that some people do not accept the media’s reflexive response citing the principle of non-alteration. They point to another media principle — minimizing harm — and note its incongruence with the permanence of a seemingly unimportant story.

In an age of 800 million-plus Facebook accounts and hundreds of millions of websites and Twitter handles, it might seem disingenuous for anyone to suggest the consequences of publicness aren’t clear.

But my experience is that many people are shocked by the immediate, rampant and persistent impact of online information about them. Moreover, I sympathize with those who encounter multimedia output where once there was simply a radio station or newspaper. We live in an era of abundant media but not necessarily abundant media literacy.

In this instance, someone thought bringing information forward and agreeing to a radio interview would be, so to speak, the only chapter in the book. She did not recognize that the interview would begat an online piece, which would form an entry on a searchable website and 4 a prominent result on any search engine query involving her name or details of the incident involving her.

In academic circles, most research is conducted with transparency about its eventual use and a waiver acknowledging and accepting such use. Obviously this is impractical for most of journalism because of the urgency and spontaneity of the exercise and the often-reluctant participation of the newsmakers. A lot wouldn’t get done if people had to consent somehow to be covered.

I am most struck in this instance by the complainant’s argument that she simply didn’t know all that could happen when she stepped forward to tell her story. It suggests there is value for CBC News to inform those who approach it with information — in effect, those who value CBC enough to want to help its coverage — that their involvement in a story will have multiplatform application. That practice might reduce the amount of what is commonly called “source remorse.” CBC argued that, in this instance, there was not a clear issue involving the complainant’s personal safety to merit deletion. Moreover, given that her incident involved police, there could be an abiding public interest in preserving the record. With some reluctance and sympathy, I could not conclude that the complainant’s professional and personal inconvenience constituted a threat to her personal safety. As such, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman