Playing fair and preserving the public record: The thorny issue of "unpublishing"

The complainant represents the new owners of a company that was the subject of a CBC News investigation five years ago. He pointed out that an internet search that brought up this story tarred the new owners with the former one’s bad practices. He wanted the story removed. Management felt they couldn’t. Based on policy, I support that decision. I did, however propose another solution…

COMPLAINT

You are part of the management team of Furnasman, a heating and air conditioning service and sales company. You purchased the company and re-launched it in October of this year. You wrote to draw attention to the fact that there is a 2009 story on CBCNews.ca about Furnasman that documents “bad business practices.” You acknowledged the importance of consumer reporting and did not dispute the content, but you pointed out that it is not reasonable for new owners to assume responsibility for past actions. The story still comes up in internet searches and you are concerned this will have an impact on your business:

This story is a very negative story and really is an unfair critique of our new company which is aggressively moving forward building the business in Winnipeg, and had nothing to do with the former Management, and our only connection is that we purchased the name Furnasman which has been around for 75 years.

You requested the story be removed.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBCNews.ca, Brodie Fenlon, responded to your request. He sympathized with your concern but declined to take down the story. He explained it is CBC’s policy “not to remove or alter archived stories other than in the most exceptional circumstances.” He told you that once published, a story becomes part of the public record and “selectively changing” or amending stories, or deleting them “diminished transparency and trust with readers.” He explained that CBC’s policy is consistent with most media organizations’. He said it would not be possible to delete this story.

REVIEW

The reality of our pasts following us around forever is a feature of the digital media age. The dilemma for media organizations is the one Mr. Fenlon outlined to you. Published material is indeed a public record, and altering it opens media organizations to criticism that is altering the historical record. CBC policy states:

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.

The bar is set high because the record should stand. But every media organization struggles with where that bar should sit, and how to consistently deal with any exceptions. This story, entitled, “Concerns raised about furnace company’s sales and repair practices,” is particularly challenging because it involves issues of public safety and public policy. It was the result of an extensive investigation by CBC News in Manitoba, and after its findings were made public, the minister of consumer affairs ordered the Consumer’s Bureau to investigate the company. An event of this scale and importance can’t simply vanish from the record.

CBC journalistic standards also talk about fairness, and there might be some reasonable compromise here. This area is so new, there are not many precedents. But there is common sense. One solution I strongly recommend CBC News management consider is to prominently place a note on the published story that the company has changed hands since this investigation.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman