Altering the record of a story by removing or modifying it is a major ethical challenge in the digital age. The complainant, Deborah Peterson, wanted her son’s name removed from an article. Read what I had to say.
You were upset when you read a story on the cbcnews.ca New Brunswick web page which included mention of your son, who died in December of 1993 after falling from the Burton Bridge while attempting to cross it on the catwalk beneath it. The reference to your son was included in an article entitled “Fredericton police ‘gravely concerned’ about urban climber.” They were commenting on the activities of a young man in Fredericton who had posted videos of his attempts to climb and cross bridges without safety gear. The article mentioned that police had escorted him from climbing sites once he returned to the ground. The article quoted a police spokesperson saying that the climbs were “reckless and very dangerous.” It was in that article that your son’s death was also mentioned. You are very concerned because the juxtaposition seems to imply your son was acting recklessly, but in fact he was not. He had a reason for using the catwalk, you said, and it was not an act of bravado. You also pointed out the Fredericton police did not raise his case in the context of this current episode and in fact they were not involved in the recovery of his body - the RCMP was.
The Executive Producer of CBC New Brunswick, Darrow MacIntyre, responded to your request. He offered condolences for the loss of your son, and said that he was “truly sorry seeing his name in this news report has caused you distress.”
He explained that as he had informed you when you met with him, he was not able to remove the reference to your son. He explained that it is CBC policy to not remove information or alter a news story after publication. CBC can consider doing so if the article is inaccurate or “unfair in some fundamental way.” He did not agree that was the case in this instance. He told you that the writer did not say that your son was found by Fredericton police, but rather that police had recovered the body.
He also said he did not agree that the article suggested your son was being reckless. He added that it was not the intention in making the decision to mention his death in this context:
The story is about the dangerous nature of climbing on bridges, and the concerns of police that doing so could lead to tragedy. In light of that, I believe it was not only fair but responsible to inform the public that climbing the Burton bridge led to just such a tragedy for one teenager, your son.
CBC journalistic policy, like that of almost all media organizations, states that removal of names or any other information is exceptional:
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.
As Mr. MacIntyre explained, if information is accurate and fair, it generally is not removed. The content that CBC News publishes becomes part of the public record, and is part of a contract with the people reading it. If content were to be removed, it would change the record, thereby weakening transparency and diminishing trust. I understand that is small comfort to you and I am sorry for your loss and your continued pain.
This is a difficult case. The principle that the record must not be altered if the information is correct is one that is difficult to bend. The reference to your son is an accurate accounting of what happened. The fact that it was a different police force is not relevant, although it would have been clearer to mention it was the RCMP.
As journalism moves to an increasing digital world, there is no doubt parsing when it is appropriate to modify or delete material will become more compelling, and never ethically simple. I agree that the content should not be removed.
There is another test that can be applied. News management might want to consider if the use of the name is critical to the public’s understanding of the information. Providing the context that young people have been harmed by crossing bridges makes sense, and there is no justification of removal of the entire paragraph, but some consideration might be given to a compromise.