Unpublishing's threats to journalistic values

Facing the pressure to unpublish

This project represents my commitment to helping the industry solve a problem that editors say is rising in importance: how to respond to requests by members of the public to “unpublish”—typically meaning deleting or significantly altering—online news content that identifies them in a way that they would rather forget. Often, but not always, the request concerns an old arrest report or other embarrassing item that is just waiting to be discovered.

Some industry groups have suggested basic guidelines for newsrooms to adopt, but research indicates that newsrooms across the country are still floundering to develop adequate, clear practices. The lack of connective tissue among industry practices make any professional claims as the first draft of history more difficult. And taking a step back, focusing on the tactical aspects of unpublishing can make it easy to sidestep the much bigger, more important question: should news organizations unpublish at all?

As a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, I have conducted research for the last several years on unpublishing, including conducting interviews with editors in newsrooms across mediums and of various sizes. They say the issue can seem deceptively simple on its surface, but a closer look reveals serious—sometimes, even existential—questions that create new pressures on virtually every aspect of the news profession (we’ll get to those in the coming months). A 2017 survey of 107 editors in U.S. newsrooms found that unpublishing is perceived as a threat to several long-held values of the profession including its commitment to accuracy, maintaining editorial independence, and preserving the historical record.

To help sort through these tensions at the core of the practice of contemporary journalism, I will work with a steering committee of industry experts to identify the most pressing issues related to unpublishing that newsrooms are facing. From there, I’ll partner with three newsrooms of various sizes and across mediums to test those resources before sharing them more broadly on a new website dedicated to addressing the unpublishing dilemma. This website will house the complete unpublishing toolkit, as well as a secure forum for editors to share ideas, ask questions of their peers, and potentially partner on additional solutions. Blog posts, Q&As with industry experts, and a roundup of industry news about unpublishing will also be included. 

Ultimately, I hope to deliver a simple yet comprehensive guide to support overworked newsrooms without the time or resources to develop these much-needed resources on their own. I welcome your input and ideas as we embark on this journey.  

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