RJI Fellowship to help newsrooms handle unpublishing requests ethically and practically

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute has awarded seven fellowships for the 2020–21 academic year for projects that address the increasing challenges in covering climate change, unpublishing, harassment of marginalized journalists and more.

University of North Carolina Ph.D. candidate Deborah Dwyer wants to make sure struggling overworked newsrooms are ready to handle unpublishing requests ethically and practically. To do this, she plans to develop an unpublishing toolkit with implementable tools and resources, as well as an online forum for news editors, during her RJI Fellowship.

Dwyer says unpublishing, or altering content that exists on a public-facing news website, is a growing concern for newsrooms, particularly now as digital news can live on news sites and Google indefinitely and as concerns for personal privacy continue to rise. Because of this, there is a growing demand from members of the public to erase their digital pasts from reminders such as an old arrest report or a comment provided that the source now regrets. Dwyer warns that as more states enact laws to expunge minor marijuana convictions, news outlets will face more requests than they can handle.

During one research study Dwyer conducted in 2017 in partnership with the Association of Press Media Editors and the American Society of News Editors, she learned that while 80 percent of the participants’ (109 total) newsrooms had unpublishing policies, almost none of them had published them in writing or shared them with others outside the newsroom.

More about the fellowship

Dwyer’s project plan begins with building an advisory board of industry professionals who will help guide the project and review the tools she develops in partnership with participating news organizations. Project advisors currently include Kathy English, the former public editor of the Toronto Star for 13 years, Alan Sunderland, executive director of the Organization for News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors, and Joy Mayer of Trusting News. Additional members will be announced soon.

Dwyer will then collaborate with several newsrooms to build unpublishing tools and resources that will be analyzed at the end of the project and revised as necessary before being made available to all news organizations interested in using them. The specific tools developed will depend on the issues each newsroom is facing, but an example is a “transparency report” to offer more information to audiences about what a news organization unpublishes or a simple tracking mechanism to promote consistency in how unpublishing requests are adjudicated. Currently, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Columbia Missourian are participating in the project.

A new website dedicated to the issue of unpublishing will offer the resources that are developed to others in the industry, as well as news and other commentary on the topic. A forum for news editors will offer a place for journalists to connect with one another and talk about unpublishing and share ideas, says Dwyer.

Project advisor Kathy English, who engaged with Toronto Star readers on the unpublishing issue for over a decade, says she and Dwyer agree that many answers to unpublishing lie in building new pre-publication practices. 

“It (news) lives on forever via Google search, so newsrooms have to think more responsibly at the outset about what they publish,” says English. She also did a study in 2009 on how the industry was handling the issue of unpublishing, when her own newsroom began seeing more unpublishing requests. The Times Free Press newspaper receives at least two to four unpublishing requests a month, says Alison Gerber, editor and director of content. Initially they didn’t have a protocol for how to handle such requests, but decided to form a committee so multiple people could weigh in on unpublishing requests, says Gerber. She says she appreciates the opportunity to be involved in research to help newsrooms develop resources to help them make unpublishing decisions, which has evolved over the years.

“I think at one time newsrooms approached this in a very black and white manner,” she says. “We didn’t ever take anything down or alter anything. But I feel like there’s been somewhat of a shift in that mentality because we’ve started to understand that things are different than they used to be when newspapers were only print products. And from the do no harm standpoint, I think we have a moral obligation to look at this content.”

Although they have unpublishing criteria they follow and a committee to consult, each request come with different nuances, says Gerber.

“I think the biggest challenge is making sure that we approach this in as fair a manner as possible,” says Gerber. “Even if we ultimately decide we’re not going to remove the piece of content, we have to give the person a fair shot at making their case.”

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