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'Unpublish': The Continued Internet Controversy

Friday, 12 Apr 2013 | 10:04 AM ET
Roel Smart | E+ | Getty Images

Ever heard of the "unpublish"? It's a phenomenon peculiar to Internet journalism. It's basically taking down a story or video you've posted on your website. And we in the business are getting hit with requests to do it more and more.

In fact, we've gotten three unpublish requests within the last two months. They were all turned down. We're particularly sensitive to the sanctity of our public record, since so many business decisions are based on it.


Why do people want us to unpublish? Lots of reasons. Some specious: Bad hair day, awkward quote. Others are more debatable: someone having job hunt problems because of what they said in an old article or video that comes up in a Google search.

Since the creation of the Internet there's been debate about how to handle these requests within the journalism craft. In 2009, one public editor took a stab at seeing whether there was any consensus within the industry. There wasn't, although there was lots of recognition it was an issue of growing concern.

Now some consensus seems to be building. Top representatives from the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal all declared during a recent gathering of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (Sabew) that they had firm policies in place against unpublishing material. Granted, most organizations make allowances if lives are endangered or facts are totally screwed up beyond all repair.

Of course, stories are routinely updated with additional material in real time. Indeed, they may even be updated long after the initial report, as Marty Bacon, executive editor of the Washington Post, noted. At the Sabew conference, Bacon said that while his paper wouldn't unpublish an online story, it would update a story if warranted after its publication. So someone named as a suspect in a crime story could get that story updated with a note that he or she had been exonerated. Of course, in recognition of resources and prescience, they'd have to ask first and prove it.

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