Advising / College Media / ethics / Websites

What happens on the Internet (usually) stays on the Internet

It’s a new school year, and that means a new crop of requests to student newspaper advisers and student editors to remove content from web archives. The Daily Eastern News received a request (which we honored), and I’ve talked to someone who is trying to get something taken off of another student newspaper web site.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit some thoughts I wrote about the matter previously.

I first wrote about this phenomenon for Keeping Free Presses Free back in 2007 (here’s a link to the entire article).

From my anecdotal observations so far, the requests for removal of information from college media web sites usually come in two flavors: embarrassment and privacy concerns.

1. Youthful Indiscretions: By far, this is at the center of most requests. A student is arrested for a minor in possession charge, or something more serious. The arrest shows up in the student newspaper’s police blotter, and then on the web site. Five years later, the (now former) student is trying to clean up the search engines while trying to find work.

2. The learning curve is steep: The second factor is what I might call embarrassment about youthful expression. Several advisers have had requests from former newspaper staffers who are now ashamed of the quality of their writing or arguments.

3.  privacy or personal security: Some people have requested material be taken down from the Internet because, were it to fall into the hands of the wrong individual, there would be the potential for harm.

There are probably other concerns that people voice in hopes of getting material taken out of a web archive, but those are the ones I’ve heard of most often.

I don’t have any easy answers to number 3. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, as the saying goes. But it can be difficult to predict how such situations will play out, or whether the situation is as dangerous as presented.

Number 2 is the easiest of the three to deal with. You wrote an article and submitted it to the student newspaper/media outlet for publication. Own your work. If you are a journalist and you wrote some grammatically-challenged copy in college, welcome to the club. If you wrote an opinion piece expressing an opinion you now regret, welcome to life. Many people change their minds over time about issues and events. It reflects growth (mostly). Taking down an article from an archive because you’re embarrassed by its quality is extremely hard to justify, especially for a journalist.

Number 1 is the most delicate of the three because there is a tremendous potential for future harmful repercussions if incorrect or incomplete information is available online. And, quite frankly, news media do a horrible job of following up on most of the mundane (to us) items that appear in a police blotter. A former editor at the Pitt News had an interesting approach to this: printing the police blotter with names in the newspaper, but not placing names online. Might be something to consider.

If someone was arrested, but never prosecuted, or was found innocent, where is the follow-up that would display that information on the web? Frequently, there is none.

This is my take: Err on the side of the facts. Add to them when they are available (but be sure to verify – don’t just take someone’s word that they were cleared of charges). There’s no need to antagonize a former student if the facts are on their side. That doesn’t mean take the article down, but you should add a note to the original article with additional information.

Above all, as I mentioned earlier, you should develop a policy (in consultation with student editors) so there is some kind of map to follow in handling these situations, which are bound to come up more and more.

There are very few instances where I’d counsel someone to remove an online article or archived item. Better to shine more sunlight on the situation.

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