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By Gina Channell Wilcox

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About this blog: I am President of Embarcadero Media's East Bay Division and the publisher of the Pleasanton Weekly, Dublin TriValley Views, San Ramon Express and Danville Express. As a 25-plus-year veteran of the media industry, I have experience...  (More)

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Removing stories from Web sites is like unringing a bell

Uploaded: Jan 11, 2008
We recently received a request that other media groups across the United States are receiving at least daily, sometimes hourly. We were asked to remove a story from our online archive.

Most often this request comes through because search engines are picking up these stories that in print version would have been hidden in a file among other old, dead stories in a newspaper's morgue, rarely to resurface. 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. In some cases what the search produces has cost people a date, a job interview or a job.

There are two issues at hand: the first being whether or not the information is correct and the second is the electronic archiving of the information.

The issue of correcting online stories is becoming quite a controversy in the journalism industry. The troubling part is not whether to correct the inaccuracy, but how to correct it. 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 request that came recently to the Pleasanton Weekly newsroom for the post to be removed didn't concern incorrect information being published. The information was correct, but embarrassing.

To unpublish an online news story is like un-ringing a bell. Once a story is published online, it goes to email 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 president of the East Bay division of Embarcadero Publishing Company, president of the Pleasanton Weekly and publisher of the Danville Weekly. Send questions to

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows,
on Jan 11, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Gina seems to want comments on this story.

Anyone here ever hear of the Wayback Machine aka the Internet Archive? I've seen their racks of servers at a datacenter in SF. Quite an extensive collection. In a lot of cases they won't have everything on the entire website archived, but the possibility is there. Web Link

My point is that even if PW were to remove a story from their website, it may still exist on the Internet in some form. People in general do not respect this true power of the Internet. I'm reminded of the story last year sometime of the law student who couldn't get hired by some law firms she applied to because an Internet search showed embarrassing photos of her. Teens especially need to be careful because they think it fun to post photos of themselves drinking alcohol and partying on their MySpace pages. That will only come back to haunt them.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jan 12, 2008 at 5:58 pm

If the published information is not accurate, I can understand the request to remove the story. However, if the information is "embarrassing" but accurate, then I support not deleting it. It is a record of your publishing history.

In my opinion, it is crazy making to remove a story after readers have commented online about it. It is a way of asking people to pretend that something didn't happen, when in fact it did. Also, what is embarrassing today, may not be embarrassing tomorrow. Deleting a story may also result in other actions being initiated that could lead to even further public attention and additional embarrassing revelations.

Posted by Don, a resident of Downtown,
on Jan 12, 2008 at 7:17 pm

I personally would consider removing a story for any reason the exception rather than the rule. I also realize that this because of the net and how it is used and/or abused today. I agree with Cholo points. Its like saying something out loud you then realizing you should not have said anything. You can't take it back or make people forget you said it. Just need to be careful what you say/type online.

Loosing the public trust in your word because of this is far more important that the single issue of someone being embarrassed about the article.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jan 13, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Deleting a portion of a story limits the discussion. When all the facts are known, the discussion tends to be more insightful,and with less speculation of the facts and fewer distortions about what may have occurred.

Emotionally charged stories can also function as an alert to a community. People take notice and find ways to reduce risk if in fact risk and/or potential danger is at hand.

Even American president's have been embarrassed and stories of their behavior have remained online. None have died from the embarrassed.

People need to be careful of what they do and say. It is easy to track down the facts, get publicly busted and then have to face the consequences. In short, I believe that the public has an interested in knowing the facts about situations that may impact their lives.
It is reasonable and fair.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jan 13, 2008 at 9:36 pm

Corrections: Line 5 & 6: No US President has died of embarrassment.

Line: 8: The public has a vested interest in knowing the facts when a situation could possibly have a negative impact on their lives.

When individuals and institutions cry foul and ask that the news be sanitized, it is self-serving.

Deleting information in favor of individuals/institutions also impacts the credibility of the PW. If the facts are limited, then it seems that you can't be trusted because you favor a cover-up over the truth.

I strongly support a story that presents as many facts as are available, and letting the chips fall where they may. Telling the truth has never been a sin.

Posted by Shelley, a resident of Downtown,
on Jan 14, 2008 at 12:40 am

I find the topic of this thread very interesting because it relates to our society's desire for digitally-born information instead of paper-based information. If the information were printed on paper, the publisher cannot undo the misprint of incorrect information. Usually in the next issue (like in a periodical) a note is added stating the correct information for the misprint in the previous issue. I think this phenomenon of "undoing" history is very prevalent in our society because it is so easy to hit the "delete" button on your keyboard and think that the information is really gone. We must realize that just because the preferred format in which we create and disseminate information is digital (like a Microsoft doc) does not give us the license to change it (even though it is so easy to) once it has been published.

Posted by james, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Jan 29, 2008 at 12:09 am

So despite your guidelines you still managed to print a story that was embarrassing to someone.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jan 29, 2008 at 9:47 pm

james...people find location from experiencing their feeling. Are you saying that that's not cool?

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jan 29, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Correction: 1st sentence - feelings.

If a person does something very nasty and illegal in a public setting and gets busted by the cops, are you saying that a cover-up is better than publishing the truth about what happened? In my opinion, it's OK to feel embarrassed. It's not OK to pretend that a law has been violated, especially if it puts innocent others at risk. No mercy here jamie!

Posted by Anger Coach, a resident of another community,
on Mar 1, 2008 at 10:39 am

As a former resident of Pleasanton for 30+ years I like to "stay in touch" with what is happening in such a GREAT community as Pleasanton. It's name speaks for itself - "Pleasant - Town".

I would just like to comment on the fact that it seems two people in particular have found a "forum" in which to "battle" their individual opinions. Perhaps a few classes at Anger Management and learning to Seek Compromise might be in order.

I believe "free speech" is a gift, but not one to be abused.

Posted by Unknown, a resident of another community,
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:59 pm

How long is this blog going to stay on?

Posted by Gina Channell-Allen, president of the Pleasanton Weekly,
on Mar 12, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Gina Channell-Allen is a registered user.

I was leaving it up until I stop getting requests / demands to pull stories off the site. Or until the decrease. I'm still getting at least one a week. I send them this link, but one person in particular is not getting the hint.

Actually, the column running this week is sort of fun, so I'll change it out. I can still send the removal requestors the link to the "bell story."

Thank you for commenting.

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