College Media / ethics

When it might be right to alter an online archive

Daily Free Press letter

This week’s College Media Podcast centered on a recent controversy at Boston University’s Daily Free Press. One thing we touched on briefly has caused me to reconsider a small piece of my stance regarding online archives.

As background, the Daily Free Press had been in the habit of writing humorous headlines for items in their crime logs. A victim of sexual assault at BU wrote an online article for xojane arguing that the humorous headlines on articles about such crimes were not sensitive to the victims of such crimes.

Agree or disagree, the board of directors of the Daily Free Press decided that the paper would discontinue the practice going forward, and schedule sensitivity training for new editors. Most important for this discussion, they also said that:

“We are updating past sub-headlines to reflect our new standards.”

I have written frequently about policies regarding online archives (see these previous articles), and the general rule I advocate is to err on the side of the truth. Update facts when they are available, but verify new facts. Don’t remove something just because someone asks. And above all, HAVE A POLICY IN PLACE!

The situation here, however, is not one that I’ve ever considered before. A paper is going through their online archives, editing and rewriting headlines on police log items because they have had a “change of policy.”

Is this a good thing to do?

On the one hand, the headlines are meant to be humorous, seemingly only tangentially related to the facts of the briefs that follow them. So you can’t really say that the newspaper is changing the facts of the story.

On the other hand, the newspaper is changing the frame of the story as it was originally printed. In a sense, they are altering their own history of potentially insensitive actions. The slippery slope argument here should be obvious.

Over all of this is the issue of the permanence of the Internet. If the newspaper does not rewrite the headlines, they will exist in the ether for a long time to perpetuate the insensitivity of the original printing. To put it bluntly, a victim of sexual assault could be mocked by a headline every time a random Internet user loads the crime logs.

In this particular instance, I would say that the newspaper could rewrite the headlines and adhere to ethical standards, with the caveat that each amended headline be hyperlinked to an explanation of why it was changed. There is no need for a slippery slope, as long as they have a policy in place regarding other online archives. There are exceptions to rules, sometimes. This would seem to be one of those times when an exception could be justified.

I’m curious to hear opinions on this twist to an ethical dilemma. Leave a comment, or email me at scmurley -at-

One thought on “When it might be right to alter an online archive

  1. Pingback: College Media Podcast 8-5-13: Online archive ethics and Verification Junkie | Innovation in College Media

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