In the past, newspapers rarely retracted old news articles simply because they harmed an individual’s reputation. Most publications took the position that their reporting of a matter was the “first draft of history” and should be neither altered nor removed.
Now, thanks to Google, negative news articles follow individuals around like a digital scarlet letter. All it takes is one negative Google search result or news article to uproot your personal and professional life. With a simple Internet search, an old article can hurt one’s online reputation across all geographic boundaries and time zones.
Fortunately, some news publications (and newspapers) are beginning to recognize the real harm outdated and negative online articles can cause and will now consider content removals in certain circumstances. The catch is that the decision to remove most unflattering news articles rests solely at the discretion of the news platform who published it.
Our firm has worked with countless news editors and site administrators to remove negative news articles from hundreds of online news platforms (and Google), so we know what works (and what does not).
While there is no precise formula to convince news platforms to remove online content, there are four ways to improve your chances of getting a yes:
- Be prepared to present your case for removal;
- Provide the editor with all relevant documentation;
- Be honest with the editor and publication;
- Be respectful of your audience.
In this post, we will discuss the best practices for removing negative news articles and negative online content from a variety of publications – whether you are dealing with a newspaper, student publication, television, or a website.
Be Prepared to Present Your Case For Removal
While just the headline of a story that covers you in a negative light might be enough to make you angry, it is important that you take the time to read the entire article. Determine which statements in the article are accurate, if any, and which statements are false. Most reputable news organizations will correct factual errors if you can document and prove why a story is factually inaccurate.
For example, say you stumble across an article that reports that you (John Smith) were arrested. In reality, the person arrested was someone else with a similar name (Jon Smythe). If you can provide documentation showing that you are not the person who was arrested, it is worth contacting the editor so they can correct the error.
Do not let your online reputation take a hit because a news organization failed to adequately verify the subject of a news article.
However, if you were actually arrested and charged with the crime reported, but the charges were later dismissed, then the story was accurate as reported. This is an important distinction.
Unfortunately, the latter example is not required to to be retracted or removed – even if the charges against you were later dismissed.
Check out our article, “9 Reasons the News Media Doesn’t Remove Online Articles” to learn more about the challenges of removing a negative news article.
What If the Article Was Inaccurate?
After you read the news article, determine which statements are inaccurate and damaging to your online reputation, and gather evidence and documentation in support of your claim.
You will need to provide this to the news publication in support of any request to correct or remove the unwanted content.
How Should You Approach the Publication?
Research the publication. If it is a news publication, research whether it is local, corporate-owned, or a university publication.
- If the publication is local (like a small-town newspaper), editing and retraction decisions likely occur in-house, at the same office where the negative content or newspaper article was published.
- If the publication is part of a larger media conglomerate or corporate entity, they may be bound by the policies of a parent company or site owner.
- If the negative content is part of a university publication, they may be difficult to contact when school is not in session. Check to see if they have any policies about who to contact for edits, retractions, or removals.
- If negative online content was published to a blog or similar type of website – take note of the tone of the blog’s content. Is it satirical, politically motivated, or related to a particular subject, like cases within a particular area of law? The answer may impact how cooperative the site will be when it comes to removal of a negative item and the best way to approach the decision maker.
Many publications do not have formal removal policies but will review requests for content removal on a case by case basis. Yet, some publications, like Cleveland.com and Patch.com have posted content removal policies on their websites.
If you are dealing with a publication that has their content removal policy listed, review the policy, and see if it addresses a situation like yours. If it does, be sure to cite specific portions of the policy that apply to your negative content situation when contacting the editor.
If your situation falls outside the scope of a stated policy for granting removal (or the publication does not have a removal policy at all), prepare to explain why your case is special enough to warrant consideration.
Research the Editor
Part of presenting any case (even when it comes to content removal) is to do your research. Not only do you want to find out as much as possible about the publication, but you also want to know about the editor.
The editor is typically the final decision-maker when it comes to publishing, correcting, or removing content. Since editors hold most of the discretion, it helps to appeal to their sensibilities.
Note: if you are dealing with a television or radio station, you will likely need to communicate with the news director or station manager instead of an editor. Each platform is different, so it is important to do your homework.
Here are two of the most important things you can do when researching a publication’s editor:
Look at the Contact Page of the Publication’s Website.
The contact page will usually list staff and may even direct you to a specific person for content removal requests. Most publications will provide contact phone numbers.
If you cannot find direct contact information, call and ask someone from the news desk for the appropriate number. There is no need to identify the specific story you are referencing until you reach the editor.
If you are dealing with a student publication, find out whether the staff advisor has a decision-making role in content removal requests. If faculty does not have a decision-making role, find out who the current editor is and the length of their tenure.
Seek Insight into the Editor’s Personality
Once you have determined the best person to contact, try to understand them on a more personal level. You can learn a lot about an editor by reading some of the other stories they published in the past.
Perhaps they prefer to cover criminal matters, social activism, or news with a political spin. Knowing an editor’s interests and leanings may help you establish a friendly rapport.
You can follow up by looking at their social media presence on sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as well. Often, a social media account or simple Google search result will provide clues about the editor’s personality and other factors that may be useful. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what facts might be most persuasive if you were making a decision about content removal.
Provide the Editor With All Relevant Documentation
The endless news cycle means most editors and news directors are busy people. When deadlines constantly loom, content removal is not an editor’s top priority. Before you contact an editor, make sure you know what to say and how to say it, so you do not waste any time getting to the point. You want to make their decision quick and easy (and you will not get a second chance to make a first impression).
Before contacting the editor, assemble any relevant documentation supporting your request. If the article is about your alleged involvement in a criminal matter, be prepared to submit paperwork confirming dismissal upon request. If you were able to get your record expunged or sealed, ensure you have documentation that shows the outcome.
If your record has not been expunged or sealed, start the process before you contact a publication. This way you can inform the editor that you have already started the process if submission of this documentation is a requirement for removal.
If your case does not involve a criminal matter, it is still important to provide documentation verifying your version of events. Any relevant documentation may be useful for the publication’s review and decision-making process.
Be Honest With the Editor & Publication
The goal of your request is to humanize your situation to a busy news editor who is unlikely to have a personal interest in your story. One way to humanize your story is to have a game plan for communicating the harm the story has caused in your life.
Two of the most effective ways of achieving this are:
- Impact statements, and
- Character references.
Prepare an Impact Statement
An impact statement is a short statement that details the negative impact the article has had on your life. The biggest mistake most people make is attacking the publication and threatening legal action if negative stories are not removed. In most situations, this is not a viable threat and you will lose any leverage you could have used to gain empathy from the editor.
Having a prepared impact statement allows you to stick to the facts – what happened, what you learned from it, and how the article is negatively impacting your life to this day.
Tips For Writing an Impact Statement
The goal of an impact statement is to tell your story in a way that persuades a busy editor to want to help. Stay away from blaming the publication for reporting the story and focus more on what you have learned from the incident and how the article has harmed you.
Be sure to note if the negative news article is dominating your search results, you cannot find employment, you have lost friends, your children are being bullied, and any other damage that has occurred because of it.
If the story reports on an allegation of sexual impropriety on your part, avoid personally attacking the other person. Let the editor know if the allegation was false and the case was dismissed.
If the allegations reported were true, admit your mistake and focus on the steps you have taken to redeem yourself in the interim. If you have no other criminal record, completed community service, and are now an upstanding member of the community, then these are all things worth mentioning.
Preparing an impact statement before you contact the publication will help you gather your thoughts and focus on the key talking points without resorting to emotional attacks. Even if you do not submit the impact statement, it helps to have as a reference when communicating with the editor.
If a negative article reported on a situation where your character or competence was called into question – getting a few character references from respected members of your community can be useful.
For example, positive statements from your religious leader, a community leader who has worked with you, or a colleague, may go a long way toward persuading the editor to remove negative news articles.
Be Respectful of Your Audience
One of the most important tips to remember when contacting the news media for content removal is to be courteous and friendly. Are you familiar with the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey”?
Remember that approach when dealing with news publications. I have removed several negative news articles by winning over gatekeepers, who then put in a good word with the editor after our call.
If you have a number for the editor, call them. Be friendly and respectful to anyone you speak with from the news organization. If you cannot speak directly to the editor, ask to leave a voicemail. Your mission is to build a friendly rapport that can be followed up with the appropriate documentation.
Once you get the editor on the phone, be concise and get to the point – quickly. Try to summarize why you would like the negative news article removed in less than a minute. Editors and news directors are always inundated with deadlines and demands, so it is important to be considerate of their time.
Most editors will not give you an immediate decision at the time of your call so ask if you can follow up by email to provide written documentation regarding your request. Follow up promptly with the written documentation while your request is still fresh in their mind.
Be Patient After Submitting Your Negative News Article Removal Request
After you have submitted a request and any supporting documentation, patience is key. Although getting the negative article down is a top priority for you, it is not usually a top priority for the publication.
Each publication has its own review process which can be as short as a few hours or as long as a few months.
Some publications such as Cleveland.com have formed newsroom committees that periodically review removal requests which can take weeks or months. Other publications will request additional documentation to supplement their review.
Once you have made it this far, you will want to follow up every few weeks for an update. At this point, the best thing you can do is maintain a respectful rapport with the editor and provide them the time they need to make their decision.
Work With Internet News Article Removal Attorneys Today
If your efforts to remove negative news articles are being ignored or you do not feel comfortable contacting the publication directly, it is recommended that you speak to an experienced content removal attorney.
Your online reputation is paramount, so it is critical that you strive to protect it at all costs.
Minc is the guardian angel of the web. In a world where trolls will spread blatant falsehoods with apparent impunity, anyone is vulnerable to on-line attack. It is such a relief to know that there is a team of experts who know how to protect individuals and businesses when they strike. Thank you so much!
JSS,Mar 12, 2019
At Minc Law, we empower people to help themselves, with a free legal resource center and educational blog. But we understand that sometimes problems cannot be resolved without the right advocate in your corner. Either way, we are here to help.
We have proven success working closely with website administrators and editors to remove negative news articles from online news publications, Google, and other news websites. Contact our office to learn more.