When to un-publish is a
question with no easy answer

By Mat Jacowleff
Bulletin Correspondent

The press is often accused by the public of publishing only, or too much, bad news. With the easy availability of news online, where news tends to live forever, some members of the public have another complaint: That bad news dogs its victims forever online, and it shouldn’t.

The ticklish topic of whether, or when, to “un-publish” news online drew an audience of about 35 people to a workshop Friday, Feb. 19, titled “Un-publishing: How newspapers should handle requests to take down published material.”

The workshop at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention featured Rob Bertsche, a media and First Amendment lawyer with Prince Lobel Tye LLP of Boston; Lisa McGinley, deputy managing editor and city editor for The Day of New London, Conn.; and Jeff Potter, editor of The Commons of Brattleboro, Vt.

Knowing when to un-publish “is an industry conversation that we have to have,” McGinley said.

Throughout the workshop, the speakers and journalists in the audience shared stories of situations in which they were faced with a choice to un-publish or leave material online. The workshop reinforced that each case of whether to un-publish is unlike others and should be handled carefully.

Bertsche detailed a hypothetical situation in which an 18-year-old is arrested on a charge of marijuana possession. The courts overturn the teen’s conviction on the charge, however, and even though he now has a clean criminal record, his name will forever be linked online to the original arrest and charge.

A member of the audience said he emails a sheet of paper that details how to push a story down off the first page of Google to anyone who calls to request that a story be un-published. He said creating a Facebook page, a LinkedIn profile and a YouTube channel could move a story to page two of Google because those highly visited sites will trump a story written by a small community newspaper.

McGinley shared a story about an interview she did with a rock star who spoke candidly about his drug use. Years later, after the man had a daughter and changed his lifestyle, he demanded that the video be edited to remove the parts discussing his drug use. She declined.

“We report these things because it’s the public’s right to know,” McGinley said. “But have we given too much of a lifetime to these stories?”

That question was debated throughout the workshop, with no clear answer that could be applicable to all situations.

An audience member suggested that a system be put in place that automatically un-publishes a police blotter after a set amount of time. The suggestion was met with concerns from other audience members that the community deserves to know about an area’s criminal activity.

Bertsche said residents in Europe have the right to have Google pages removed if a story has inaccurate, inadequate or excessive information about them or a family member. Multiple court cases in the United States have produced rulings against that practice, Bertsche said.

Many audience members expressed concern about whether to protect and cater to members of their community or to fulfill their obligation to the community as journalists and report the news for what it is.

In his final remarks, Potter outlined his thoughts on the job of a newspaper in a community and the importance of looking at each case of un-publishing individually.

“(A) community newspaper is just as much about community as it is about newspaper,” Potter said.

Rob Bertsche, a panelist and lawyer with Prince Lobel Tye LLP of Boston, gestures to the audience of about 35 people at the session on ‘Un-publishing: How newspapers should handle requests to take down published material.’

Mat Jacowleff is an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

POSTED 3/6/16


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