Public Record vs. Right To Be Forgotten

In this case, the complainant was not asking for her name to be removed completely but that her name be taken out of a headline of a story. LuAnne Sirdiak wanted the headline changed because she thought it left an exaggerated impression of her importance in the story when it came in an internet search of her name. CBC management declined to do so as is their right under the policy on deletions and alterations of digital content.

COMPLAINT

Your name appeared in a headline about the Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council. You were one of a number of senior officials who had left the Council in a short period of time.

You requested that your name be removed from the headline because you are looking for work and believe the presence of this headline in web engine searches is affecting your prospects. You added that you are not asking to have your name removed from the body of the article. You think changing the headline would not alter the story in any meaningful way, but would minimize the impact it creates when it appears in an internet search:

I have asked an HR professional for their opinion on the impact of the headline on prospective employers. The headline is glaring because it includes my name front and Centre like it was huge news, which it's not.

You noted that the employment situation in Alberta is not very good at the moment, and this story is an added impediment to finding a job.

Going forward, with the internet at employer's fingertips it would behoove the press to be sensitive of the headlines they use and the impact they have on citizens.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC News in Edmonton replied to your request. He told you while he was “sympathetic to your situation”, he could not agree to changing the headline. He explained that stories can be altered or amended if there are errors, but it is CBC policy not to alter reports, including their headlines unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Selectively changing or removing stories, however good the reason seems at the time, is in effect censoring them, altering history. While I can only speak about CBC News policy in this regard, I think you will find it is a common policy among credible print and electronic news organizations.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices contains a policy on the removal of published material.

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.

As Mr. Cunliffe informed you, the default for published material is to leave the record intact. There are important issues of transparency and accountability. It is very challenging to alter the public record. News organizations are increasingly grappling with the powerful competing ethical demands created by the “long tail of news” and the immutability of one’s presence in the digital space. This request is more nuanced - as you are asking removal from a headline and not the body of the report. Its removal from the headline would not alter the fact that the article would appear in an internet search of your name. It is unclear to me that there is a material difference on the impact of a person’s reputation. There is no violation of policy in declining to alter the headline. There is, however, much food for thought about the impact of the durability of news stories. In your case, the story was about a public institution. Two Ryerson University professors, Ivor Shapiro and Brian Rogers, have recently published a paper on How the ‘right to be forgotten’ challenges journalistic principles. The considerations of accountability, the integrity of the record and the basic journalistic value of free expression are in tension with the considerations of minimizing harm and a right to privacy. I am glad the CBC policy indicates the need for discussion before any decision on altering publication. It requires nuanced and ongoing consideration.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman