Persuading a news organization to remove an old online article about an embarrassing court case or less-than-flattering exposé can be a challenging task. When approaching newsrooms, it’s common to encounter editorial push-back, insensitivity towards people being reported on and a strict interpretation of the First Amendment.
Nine of the most common reasons the news media does not remove online articles and information:
- They’re not required to do so;
- It’s a public record;
- It’s an accurate report;
- Fair Report Privilege applies;
- It’s a matter of public concern;
- There’s no harm to the article’s subjects;
- Antiquated editorial practices;
- The story has been updated;
- Unclear internal unpublishing guidelines.
With newspaper coverage increasingly migrating online, an old article is no longer consigned to a recycling bin or microfiche. Newspaper stories published online stay there forever and have a lasting impact on their subjects. Having an embarrassing article or mugshot about your past remain online can haunt you the rest of your life. It can cost you a job, or embarrass you in front of your children or a possible future life partner.
But, don’t worry! Unpublishing isn’t mission impossible. As a law firm specializing in internet defamation and online content removals, we have helped clients from across the United States and the globe remove damaging and unwanted online content. It can be done, and our clients have been able to turn the page on an unpleasant incident and move on with their lives.
From a technical standpoint, all it takes to remove the article are a few keystrokes from the newspaper’s back office. And, especially if legal charges were dropped or expunged, there’s a strong moral case for removal. Publications are hesitant to remove, though, due to ingrained attitudes and habits that can seem mystifying from the outside.
Below, we’ll look at the top nine reasons news organizations resist removing news articles. We’ll also tackle how you can navigate around it to better protect your online reputation.
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A. T.,Dec 9, 2019
- News Organizations Are Not Required to Remove Content
- News Articles Are Part of the Public Record
- News Organizations Don’t Commonly Remove Accurate Reporting
- Fair Report Privilege is Protected
- News Organizations Defend Issues of Public Concern
- News Outlets Consider the Implications of Leaving Content Against Removing It
- Publications Often Operate Under Antiquated Ideas
- The Story Has Been Updated Already
- News Organizations Have Unclear Internal Unpublishing Guidelines
- News Media Outlet Removal Policies
- Minc Law Can Help Remove Damaging News Articles & Media
News Organizations Are Not Required to Remove Content
Publications enjoy numerous protections from the U.S. Constitution and case law that allow them to publish their stories. As long as the report is accurate, in most cases, there is nothing that can “make” a publication remove the content.
This attitude is encapsulated by the advice one lawyer offered to publications to avoid knuckling under to every unpublishing request that comes along: “[T]here is no law – nor could there be, thanks to the First Amendment – requiring you to remove any articles from your archives. The analogy, of course, is that you have no obligation to go to the public library and pull hard copies of your paper that are on the shelves just because someone you wrote about has been acquitted or gotten a conviction expunged.”
News Articles Are Part of the Public Record
Publications are the gatekeepers of the “public record.” They view their reporting as the preservation of that record. By removing a story, they are removing it from that record and, in their view, deleting history.
In an online discussion of unpublishing several years ago in the iMediaEthics site, Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, exemplified this attitude. He stated, “I have a typical journalist’s/historian’s abhorrence for altering the record.”
News Organizations Don’t Commonly Remove Accurate Reporting
Many publications will not consider the removal of an article that contains true information. This creates difficulty when dealing with arrest records or police blotters because the information is true, but does not mention the outcome of the trial or adjudication.
An absolute defense to a charge of defamation is “truth.” Just because the truth may sometimes hurt, it doesn’t give rise to an absolute right to request a publication’s removal.
Sometimes publications are willing to modify minor inaccuracies or include online updates. This may happen where police charges were dropped. But, that can be a double-edged sword. Modifying the story can cause it to be republished and rise in Google rankings.
Online Defamation Removal Tip: If you’re looking to remove a piece of content from the Internet, the first step is documenting it. Make sure to take a screenshot of the unwanted piece of content, its URL, and search results that led to you finding it.
Fair Report Privilege is Protected
Even in cases where someone was falsely accused, the publication may choose not to remove because of the fair report privilege. This privilege allows publications to report on law enforcement efforts or legal proceedings.
Even if those proceedings turn out to be wrong, so long as the report fairly depicts the proceeding itself, then it will be protected.
News Organizations Defend Issues of Public Concern
Publications will not remove a story if they view it as a matter of public concern. This comes up often when dealing with prominent individuals or elected officials.
Even private people can find themselves in the glare of publicity and involved in an issue of public concern. That can happen when an individual is swept up in a public policy issue that’s of general interest to the community.
This justification will also pop up when an article is considered relevant due to its timeliness. If an article has gotten a lot of views, and was only published a few months earlier, the publication might be less inclined to listen to a request to take it down.
News Outlets Consider the Implications of Leaving Content Against Removing It
Publications often weigh the harm caused to an individual by the continued publication of the article against their desire to maintain the public record. If the publication doesn’t think there is any harm in the story remaining published, then they may decide to leave it up.
Even if a part of a report is defamatory, the publication may seek to defend it by arguing that the defamatory section doesn’t exceed the harm caused by the rest of the publication. This rarely invoked argument is known as the incremental harm doctrine.The incremental harm doctrine is true to its name, and will apply when the damage caused by a publication is minimal.
Defamation Law Fact: Most people mix up the terms ‘libel’ and ‘slander’. Libel refers to a false written statement of fact, while slander refers to a false spoken statement of fact. Both cause damage to another’s reputation.
Publications Often Operate Under Antiquated Ideas
Some publications are not aware of the impact that a person’s Google search results can have on his or her life. Or, sometimes they’re just dismissive of it.
Some smaller publications may have never even been faced with such an argument. The newspaper industry was slow to adapt to the demise of ink and newsprint and the rise of the internet. This is a core reason so many publications have been closed or hollowed out.
The former newspaper journalist behind the website, “Newspaper Death Watch,” tracking layoffs and closures in the industry, got started after many editors rejected a column he wrote back in 2007 about the threat the internet posed.
Given the delay in adapting to the new digital world, it can be hard to make editors see how articles floating around the internet can affect people.
The Story Has Been Updated Already
Many publications will take the time to update a story to accurately reflect the information. While it is helpful to have an accurate report, updates are also used as a reason why the story won’t be removed. If the information has been updated, then it is now accurate, and should remain up.
Brand Reputation & Monitoring Tip: If you or your business have an online presence, it’s imperative you establish an online reputation monitoring budget. Doing so is a great way to learn what the general public thinks of you and your product or service, and identify intellectual property infringers!
News Organizations Have Unclear Internal Unpublishing Guidelines
News industry groups have been aware of the issues around unpublishing and debated them for many years. But many publications have still delayed in devising concrete policies to do anything about them.
A survey conducted by Deborah Dwyer, a media ethics specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, has shed light on the extent to which news outlets are still struggling to deal with removal requests.
The survey found that 80% of the outlets surveyed had established unpublishing policies. But almost half of those policies weren’t put down in writing and only 2% were shared beyond the newsroom. Just a small sliver (14%) of media outlets put unpublishing guidelines in an official staff manual, Dwyer’s survey revealed, and 40% of respondents said they learned about the policies only when an issue arose.
Finally, in terms of who makes the decisions on unpublishing, the survey found that usually the editor-in-chief and/or the managing editor had the final say. But 64% of respondents said the IT department was capable of removing content autonomously, leaving the techs in an enormous position of power.
News Media Outlet Removal Policies
We talked to several media outlets about their removal policies to let editors comment directly on how they deal with unpublishing requests.
Cleveland Jewish News
An archetypal response came from Kevin Adelstein, president and publisher of the Cleveland Jewish News. He said his publication is reluctant to remove content because it would open up editors to accusations of playing favorites.
“(W)e do receive requests from time to time, from non-public individuals or their legal counsel, requesting removal of an article we’ve written about in which they have found themselves in a civil or criminal situation,” Adelstein wrote in a response to our question.
“While the decision to remove such content is at the discretion of the publisher, there are very few instances and each one on a case by case basis – in which we will agree to remove content from our website and/or de-index for search engines. To avoid any perception of favoritism, bias or ‘picking and choosing’ what’s removed, again, it’s important to note that there are very few instances in which we remove such content.”
Indeed, Adelstein says it would probably take a court order to prompt him to remove content.
Some publications are more open to removals. Patch, the hyperlocal news platform that operates in more than 1,200 communities throughout the 50 states, publishes an online form allowing readers to make takedown requests.
Lauren Traut, Managing Editor of Patch, noted in comments to us that Patch is under no legal obligation to remove stories.
“We do view ourselves as ethically obliged, however, to be fair and to allow people to move on with their lives without some transgressions coming up at the top of Google name searches,” she wrote.
“Cases involving teens and youthful transgressions (disorderly conduct, minor drug possession cases, etc.) are viewed with a compassionate eye. When someone contacts us about a removal, we require that they or their attorney provide any legal documents regarding the disposition of the case. If we’re able to verify the outcome, we will remove identifying information from the post (depending on the circumstances) or even remove the post.”
Traut said the policy has been in place for four years and that Patch receives roughly 100 takedown requests a month.
WCPO Channel 9 Cincinnati
On its website, WCPO Channel 9 TV in Cincinnati also provides an “Unpublish Request” form which people can use to ask for items to be removed from the website.
In an article he penned on removals, Mike Canan, Senior Director of Local Content, said handling unpublishing requests on court records involves seeking a delicate balancing of two key tenets of journalism. He wrote:
- “We are the writers of history, sharing the story of what happens in our community. These arrests did happen. Removing a record of them seems contrary to that goal.
- We also do not want to cause undue or unwarranted harm to people. We strive for fairness.”
In an interview, Canan said WCPO’s website gets two or three removal requests per month. He says he wouldn’t want to offer a number on how many content removals the station makes, because “everything is situation-dependent.”
One of the most recent cases where the station removed content came when it deleted one bullet point from a story dealing with lawsuits.
“In the bullet point, we named a woman who had filed a wrongful termination lawsuit claiming she was unfairly fired after being accused of sexual harassment,” Canana wrote to us.
“The case settled. The mention of her name was now coming up in Google searches and keeping her from getting a job. The article was several years old. We decided that particular bullet point was not necessary for the story and that by claiming she was wrongfully terminated she didn’t necessarily do anything wrong.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer & Cleveland.com
A big experiment in unpublishing is unfolding at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper.
In 2018, Cleveland.com, the paper’s website, announced a new policy on removals. Under the policy, people who’ve committed nonviolent crimes and successfully petitioned courts to have their records expunged will have their names removed from the website if they can provide proof of expungement.
The policy was the result of lots of soul-searching, Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn wrote. “Not a week goes by anymore, it seems, that several of us in the newsroom don’t hear from people who are blocked from improving their lives by the prominence of Cleveland.com stories about their mistakes in Google searches of their names,” he explained in an article.
“They don’t get jobs, or their children find the content, or new friends see it and make judgments.” Since launching the initial policy, Cleveland.com has taken it one step further and created a committee of editors and reporters to weigh unpublishing requests on a case by case basis.
Minc Law Can Help Remove Damaging News Articles & Media
It’s encouraging that some newspapers are no longer invoking the First Amendment to shut down unpublishing requests out of hand. The number of editors rejecting binary solutions—either leaving the article untouched or removing it—seems to be declining. Middle-ground alternatives are emerging that can still provide some relief to the subjects of stories.
The group at Minc is AMAZING. VIctoriya was fantastic!! She was very attentive to my needs and extremely prompt in dealing with the difficult situation at hand. She was very responsive to my many questions and took care of the situation effectively and rapidly. I definitely should have contacted them sooner. They had all the damaging content removed in less than a week. Thank you so much!!!
Nm,Nov 9, 2019
For example, one solution gaining acceptance is de-indexing the article from search engines. Search engine de-indexing removes an article from Google’s index. This prevents the article from appearing in Google’s search results and makes it harder to find for everyday internet users.
If a harmful and negative online article is damaging your personal or professional life, call the experienced defamation removal lawyers at Minc Law. Minc Law has extensive experience working with news organizations and websites and can claim a nearly 100% removal rate.