Dodging your digital past: CBC News can't alter the record

The complainant, Jiahao Wen, wanted CBC News online to take down a story involving him and his wife, who were charged with forging transit passes in Vancouver three years ago. The story was accurate and on the public record. CBC policy does not allow its removal.

COMPLAINT

You initially wrote to this office requesting that CBC News management remove an article about your wife who was charged with forgery and using a forged document. You were also charged in regard to the same scheme to sell phony transit passes in Vancouver. The article reports some of the details of her immigration detention hearing and highlights the fact she was facing deportation because of the criminal charges.

You pointed out that it has been three years since the article was published, and that you and your wife have made a fresh start in a small community in China. You said “we are actually good people” and regret what you did at the time. You also mentioned that the fact this story comes up in an internet search has caused your wife a great deal of anguish, and that she suffers from “melancholia.” When you were told by Marissa Nelson, Senior Director of Digital Media for CBC News, that it is generally against CBC policy to remove articles from the archive, you asked me to review the matter and requested that CBC consider removing your wife’s name.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In response to your request to remove the article entirely, Marissa Nelson, Senior Director of Digital Media, explained that it is CBC’s practice, as well as most media, to keep the archive of stories intact:

While I can appreciate your concern in these circumstances, I regret to say there is little I can do toward meeting your request.

It is CBC policy not to remove or alter archived stories other than in the most exceptional circumstances. If a story is inaccurate, we will correct it and advise readers that we have changed it. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or write a follow up story. But once published, the story is a matter of public record. To simply remove it, or part of it, from the archive would take us into rather treacherous waters. Selectively changing or removing stories, however good the reason seems at the time, is in effect censoring them, altering the past.

REVIEW

CBC policy on removal of stories is quite clear. It states that material may be removed only under the most exceptional circumstances; it is a matter of public trust that the record not be altered:

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.

It is unfortunate that this continues to cause you and your family some distress. The story involves the criminal justice system and its publication was in the public interest. Because it involves charges being laid, the knowledge of who was charged is an essential piece of information. Once a story involves the justice system, it is by definition a public event, unless there is a publication ban.

I sympathize that you wish the article would go away, but CBC News management does not believe that it meets the criteria to remove it. While that decision rests with them, I agree that it does not. The internet age means that information follows us around indefinitely, and it is extremely difficult to erase one’s digital past. If news organizations selectively remove material, it can undermine credibility, a key commitment of any news organization, and one spelled out in CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. It would rightly raise suspicions about why one particular article should stand, and another be erased. When there are errors or incomplete information, the solution is to correct it. You are not disputing the accuracy of the information. I am afraid you have little recourse.

I note the article talks about charges laid, and that your wife would likely face a deportation hearing. It does not say what the disposition of those charges was or if the hearing actually took place. CBC policy states that once there has been a report of charges being laid, there is a strong obligation to report the final outcome of the case. Those details are not clearly spelled out in the article, nor does there seem to be a subsequent version. CBC News management should consider updating the story.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman