Request to remove articles

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

As difficult as it sometimes is, CBC management made the right decision to leave a story online when asked to remove it. The review considers the issues involved.

You asked Marissa Nelson, Senior Director of Digital Media for CBC News, to remove two articles written about your brother. You believe that he is “bothered and irritated” by the presence of the articles, and this is having an impact on his recovery from a mental illness. You wrote, “…the presence of the articles on the CBC website is worsening my brother’s mood which is closely associated with his illness…” You point out he is not yet comfortable with people knowing about his condition. This was also causing your family considerable stress.

The articles were published in August 2009 after you came forward asking for media and police assistance in finding your brother, who had gone missing from an Ottawa area hospital. The second article noted he had been found.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Ms Nelson responded by saying she could appreciate your concern, but that it is generally CBC’s policy not to remove or alter archived stories “other than in the most exceptional circumstances.” Even if a story is inaccurate, it is corrected and the changes are noted, but it is not removed. She explained that to selectively alter or remove stories is a form of censorship, of altering the past, and news organizations pretty consistently decline to do so. She did, however, remove the photo of your brother from the web site.

The request to remove published material is an ongoing challenge for all news organizations in this digital age. In the old days, tapes of broadcasts and newspaper clippings and scripts existed, but on library shelves. Now, access to information is virtually eternal, ubiquitous and easily searchable. Even if a news organization does agree to delete a story, there is no guarantee that it is not cached on another search engine, or part of the story has not been picked up or quoted on another website. CBC News does have a policy to deal with these requests. Ms Nelson outlined the basic premise in her response to you. The general principle is that material should remain part of the record, and be corrected if wrong. There is consideration of removal if there is a” legal or personal safety threat.”

Requests for deletions

Because much online material remains accessible indefinitely, we receive requests to remove stories by audience members who are either principals in stories, or are affected by them.

We generally do not agree to requests to remove published material from our web pages.

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.

There can be exceptions to this position -- where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.

Requests to remove material should be referred to the Director.

The challenging part of all this is where to set the bar for that threat. From your perspective and that of your family, it must feel very strong – you are living with it every single day. For journalists, it feels like a slippery slope – it is indeed altering the record and a disservice to a broader audience if stories come and go. There is a competing journalistic value at play. Most news organizations believe transparency is a critical value. Altering the record betrays it.

This case is further complicated by the fact that you approached the media for help when your brother was missing. Both the police and Ottawa city councillors were involved, and so your brother’s case is very much part of the public record. CBC cannot simply expunge it. It is understandable that you believe that media access was a time limited need, and since the situation no longer pertains, the record should disappear.

Ms Nelson did try to mitigate impact by removing the photo. Another option would be to leave the story but remove the name. Sometimes that is possible – but because this was a missing person story, without the name, the narrative is meaningless.

CBC journalists have followed policy in considering your request, and have judged it does not meet that bar. In this case, I respect that judgment. As a concession to your request for privacy, I have agreed to post this review on the Ombudsman’s website without using your name. It seems reasonable to spare your family further distress.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman