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Editors are increasingly faced with requests to unpublish news content. It could be from a young person haunted by a silly but highly SEO-friendly mishap from years ago now struggling to apply for university or a job. Or maybe a reader with mental health issues made more severe because of a published story.

"Unpublishing depends on your moral compass," says Deborah Dwyer, 2020-2021 residential fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute who spent several years studying this issue.

What we unpublish - as well as what we publish - depends on our lived experience. It is gatekeeping in reverse. When we ponder what to unpublish, it is because we rarely give proper thought to what we do publish and why.

Do we want to cover every drink-driving story or use the most unflattering photo of somebody? Can we foresee how publishing a story can impact someone with fragile mental health?

Whatever the editorial decisions, requests to unpublish news content are on the rise and so are the calls for some kind of industry standard. Although some organisations have in-house guidelines, most newsrooms do not have formal rules on how to deal with these requests. One of the reasons is the lack of data that could help us analyse and keep track of unpublishing decisions.

A good start would be defining what unpublishing actually is. There are many options when dealing with a request, ranging from anonymising the person in a published piece, to de-listing the article from the website and search engines, to updating a piece with an editor's note, to deleting it altogether.

Dwyer defines unpublishing as "the act of deleting factual content that has been previously published online in response to an external request prompted by personal motivations such as embarrassment or privacy concerns".

This brings in another question: what is the information's lifespan? Can a publisher hide an article from the public but make it available to its journalists should the information prove valuable in the future?

The truth is, most media organisations are terrible at archiving their content. Few are doing more than 'archiving' articles in their CMSs or relying on a cloud tool.

"This brings us back to the conversation about values like credibility, trust and accuracy," says Dwyer. "How do we use these values to determine what we publish and unpublish?"

Agreeing on golden standards

Creating a guide around unpublishing would require news publishers to overcome some important hurdles.

First, we need to start collecting the requests to unpublish news content and mapping decisions as editors rarely remember how they dealt with a particular query and why.

"The decision is often moral and not legal," says Dwyer. "If someone has been cleared of an accusation, we need to decide whether it makes sense for them to remain guilty by Google."

The problem is that this also opens up a new and very risky avenue for editorial influence and corruption that we have not even begin to fathom.

"There is no law in the US that obliges publishers to delete or update content," says Dwyer. She gives an example of a person who was arrested but not convicted - when they are innocent, their record is expunged. But if this information remains in the media, it is there for all to see.

From the point of view of a journalist, however, reporting someone's arrest is accurate and the information was correct at the time of publishing.

So what makes sense in the technological world? What is the tech solution?

"Tech, media and legal don't talk to each other," says Dwyer, adding that newsrooms were never designed to deal with digital redemption that would give people the right to a new start. Print newspapers would simply disappear from circulation or a print copy would be available from, say, public library and people would need to go to great efforts to dig out stories from years ago.

In today's world, however, information about anyone is only a few clicks away.

One solution that Dwyer talks about would be a collaboration between newsrooms and legal bodies to help determine when unplublishing is justified.

For example, if someone asks for their picture to be removed because they are being stalked, a sympathetic editor may feel inclined to take it down. This, however, may require some verification process to make sure the person is not making it up.

The police could offer valuable insight and help assess the risk to the alleged victim of stalking. On the flip side, having police involved in editorial decision-making creates a whole host of other problems, not least that it may deter some communities from coming forward.

Another example is when people request to unpublish a story because they are suicidal. In most cases, US newsrooms would ask for a confirmation from a therapist to corroborate this claim before unpublishing an article.

Whatever processes we put in place, journalists "must make sure that there is more than just our mood on that day that counts" says Dwyer. That said, any efforts to create some kind of standardised approach will be likely confined within the borders of each country because of the cultural and legal differences between different states.

If we don't get a handle on this, it's going to be solved for us.Deborah Dwyer

Another hurdle is communicating these unpublishing standards to the readers to assure transparency and potentially reduce the number of requests for deleting information.

"Right to be forgotten had a massive impact on US publishing," says Dwyer. "If we don't get a handle on this, it's going to be solved for us." In some newsrooms, she added, the requests already go to legal departments so journalists must be mindful of all the actors who are trying to solve the unpublishing conundrum and make sure they maintain their independence.

All this brings us to assessing the future value of information. There is a justifiable argument that we should not unpublish anything. Giving the rising danger of misinformation and manipulation of information by governments left and right, once we open the door to the possibility of deleting reported information, we are running ourselves in danger.

If the news media is not a trustworthy record of public information, what is?

Want to know more? Deborah Dwyer will talk about unpublishing at Newsrewired on 10 December 2020. Grab your ticket here

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