Most often this request comes through because Internet search engines are picking up these stories that in the print version would have been hidden in old files. Now, with the click of a mouse, prospective and current employers, sweethearts, neighbors and friends can "Google" a name - even your name - and get an electronic history, all the good and bad. Such searches have cost people a date, a job interview or a job.
There are two issues at hand: the first is whether or not the information is correct, and the second is the electronic archiving of the information.
The issue of how to correct online stories is becoming a controversy in the journalism industry. When an error occurs, should the information be corrected within the story, or should the correct information be added to the top of the story with an editor's note, or both? However, the recent request that came to the Weekly for the post to be removed didn't concern incorrect information being published. The information was correct, but embarrassing.
To un-publish an online news story is like un-ringing a bell. Once a story is published online, it goes to e-mail feeds, search engines and site subscribers. Within a few minutes, people will have read the story and some may have posted comments. Removing a story completely leaves a void in the continuum of feedback comments posted. And when site visitors remember reading something and then it completely disappears, they question what else has "disappeared" and why. This is also the reason an editor's note at the top of an online story noting any corrections is important. People need to know what has been changed in a story and why.
Journalists use a series of guidelines to determine whether a story is valid. These same guidelines are used to determine whether or not to un-publish a story, or a portion of a story. For example, they ask themselves about the purpose of the story, the stakeholders in the decision to remove the story, and the consequences they will face if the story is removed. Alternative courses of action, such as deleting a portion of the story, appending an editor's note with further explanation or amendments, re-reporting the story, etc., and the consequences of those, are also considered.
We also need to be able to explain the decision to the stakeholders and to the readers, remembering there are always at least two sides to every story and at least two individuals affected by our decision. For example, in the request that came to our newsroom, the individuals and groups that sustained injury because of the actions of the individual in the story would certainly not benefit from it being deleted as if it never occurred.
Altering or deleting an accurate news story would be like rewriting history, which doesn't manifest transparency or trust in a news organization.
Gina Channell-Allen, a 20-year journalism veteran, is the publisher of the Danville Weekly and the president of the East Bay division of Embarcadero Publishing Co. Send questions to gallen@DanvilleWeekly.com.