Unpublishing Peril.

The complainant, Suzanne Martyn-Jones, Vice-President of Marketing and Communications at Knowledge First Financial, asked that an article published in 2010 regarding group RESPs be de-listed. The concern was that much had changed in the industry but prospective clients were reading this article and rejecting this option to save for their children’s education. The article is clearly dated and was accurate and balanced given the situation at the time. No reputable media organization would effectively remove a story like this because it is part of the public record. CBC Journalistic policy allows for its continued presence on the web.

COMPLAINT

You are the Vice-President of Marketing and Communications for Knowledge First Financial, a provider of Group Registered Education Savings Plans (RESP). You engaged a consultant, Benjamin Lambert, to write to this office with the request that an article published on the CBC News website on September 7, 2010 be de-indexed - that is to render it no longer searchable. The article is entitled Group RESPs: reading the fine print.”

Mr. Lambert stated that a search on the topic yielded this article at the top of the list, and people reading it would not notice it is 8 years old. He said that your company is experiencing difficulties because of it:

The article is, therefore, unintentionally misleading readers to assume the truth of facts that are no longer accurate. This is causing a severe amount of damage to my client and others within the industry. Prospective clients often cite your article in expressing their hesitation to speak to my client’s representatives and/or their decision not to enrol in my client’s plans.

Mr. Lambert noted that there have been a series of regulatory changes, as well as changes in industry practice, that render this article outdated. He cited changes in the company prospectus which uses plain language so that clients understand the product they are considering. There are other practices that ensure clients understand what their commitment will be when it comes to fees charged for the plan. He said there is a high level of transparency:

New customers are required to sign and initial in the places that outline those fees, confirming that they have read and understood them. In many ways, the fees of a Group RESP from a Scholarship Plan Dealer are now more transparent than fees imbedded in a mutual fund, especially when it comes to the statements of account that breaks down each individual fee incurred, identifying what it is for.

Mr. Lambert noted there are no updates or changes to this article. He thought that potential customers do not have a “level of savviness” to discern that this is old information:

Should people who plan to invest a lot of money conduct proper and thorough due diligence? Yes. Do they? No. As lawyers and journalists we cannot impute to the general public the same standards of research, due diligence, etc. to the general public, when studies show time and time again that the majority of people do not do this. In fact, studies increasingly show that most people do not read past the headline. Of the few who do, most don't make it past the first two paragraphs.

He argued that it would be a service to CBC readers if this article was de-indexed because that would allow newer, more up-to-date information a higher ranking to help citizens make informed decisions.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Steve Ladurantaye, Managing Editor @cbcnews, replied to your request. He noted that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has specific policy about the removal or altering of articles. He explained that CBC’s published content is considered part of the public record and cannot be deleted, except in extraordinary circumstances. He pointed out that the request to de-index was essentially removing the article from the internet. He said this article did not meet the criteria to do so because the article indicated changes were coming, and was accurate at the time is was written:

I’ve read the story in question several times since receiving your letter. It is clearly dated and it also says plainly that changes are being considered that may change some of the disclosure rules facing those who sell group RESPs.

The most substantial of these changes, as you note, was a move toward more “plain language” in prospectus material. This is a change, to be sure, but it doesn’t make the original story incorrect. As this story shows, confusion is still very much an issue in the industry.

The rest of the changes you cite were made by your client after consulting with plan holders. These aren’t regulatory changes of consequence, but rather business decisions made to attract clients and present them with relevant products.

He added that there are “thousands of articles” on the site that were correct when published, but new regulations or practices were in place. These articles form a record of the topic or issue. He addressed your concern about the fact that you said this article featured prominently when this topic is searched:

I’d also note that different users end up with different search results based on their own browsing habits. While you said that our story was the No. 1 result, I was unable to find a link until my fifth page of results.

REVIEW

The policy Mr. Ladurantaye mentioned says:

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.

There are other remedies suggested - correcting an inaccuracy or providing updates to its resolution are two possibilities. There is agreement that this story was accurate at the time it was written. It also conformed to other CBC journalistic policy requirements. While it pointed out some issues with group RESPs and featured someone who felt exploited, it also provided the opposing view. It is true that there have been both changes in practice and regulation. However, as Mr. Ladurantaye pointed out, this article is clearly dated. CBC archives reveal multiple stories produced on the subject of group RESPs in the intervening 8 years. Journalism and reporting are iterative - as a situation changes, new information is added or fresh context is provided. Since the bar is extremely high for the removal or alteration of what is a public record, the rejection of the request to de-list the article (effectively putting it beyond the reach of a search engine) is not a violation of CBC journalistic policy.

I would also add when both my assistant and I searched “group RESPs,” this article did not come near the top of the result. If consumers are asking questions based on this dated article, I have no doubt there is updated information they can be directed to in order to make an informed decision. There are no grounds for altering or de-indexing this story.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman