Wick Communications

A new take on take-downs

In Online media on July 27, 2017 at 2:02 pm

By now, I’m guessing all the editors at Wick properties have been asked at one time or another to “take down” or remove from the website an old story that is an inconvenient truth for some unlucky reader. We’ve been talking about what to do about these requests ever since we started publishing online. (The Kicker first addressed the issue seven years ago, for what it’s worth.)

Perhaps the most typical case is something like this: A guy was arrested for a DUI in, say, 2005, and it continues to come up when he searches his name on Google. He thinks, perhaps with some reason, that the old arrest is figuring into his trouble getting a job. He may even tell you that the case was ultimately dropped.

So what do you do?

Time was, the police blotter appeared in the print newspaper one day and that was it. It didn’t follow you around like a virtual puppy dog intent on peeing on your leg every so often. Obviously, we couldn’t “unpublish” something that appeared in the paper 10 years ago. But, theoretically, we could take it off our website.

It would be very rare for me to recommend you do that. And I was heartened by some legal advice that appeared this month in the California Newspaper Publishers Association quarterly.

CNPA legal counsel Nikki Moore said that there is no legal obligation to honor such requests, unless a court orders you to do so and that is vanishingly unlikely. …

She notes that some publishers have a policy of never removing old stories, while some consider each request individually. Moore says that some media attorneys would recommend against a third alternative, which is to change the offending story with some note at the bottom explaining why you did so. She says a court could construe that to be a “republish” and that has implications in a defamation case. So let’s not do that.

Why would you ever take something down from your site? In a separate column in the newsletter, newspaper publisher and CNPA President Bill Johnson posits one scenario. He notes that those with unusual names are more likely than the Bill Johnson’s of the world to be hounded by first-page Google search results of long ago embarrassing facts. He suggests that it might be discriminatory and a matter of social justice. He says we would do well to consider ethnicity in some cases.

I agree, and that is just one reason. What do you tell a former student body president who now works in military intelligence and says the old posting about his school government days puts his life in jeopardy? How about a mother whose toddler died of drowning 15 years ago, who says seeing the story today makes her suicidal?

I am not sure there is a policy that will solve this issue once and for all. I know that I consider each case carefully. As a rule of thumb, I am unlikely to delete stories that were factually accurate at the time. I might be convinced to write a follow-up on how the case turned out. And I don’t think I would ever edit an old story.

Keep in mind that just because you remove a story doesn’t mean it is gone from the internet. Google caches files at its own whim. Other sites harvest links and stories for their own purposes. It might even be on The Wayback Machine, which is a story unto itself.

What are  your thoughts?

Clay

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