Erasing News Archives image

By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The searing images and reports of the January 6 terrorist mass attack on the nation’s Capital caused a long-simmering debate to resurface over preserving or expunging printed and visual information about people that could be damaging or embarrassing in the future.

Is this political correctness where people do not want to be confronted with their own past actions? Or recognition that media reports are not always fair to people and should be updated and corrected as a matter of social justice?

Just two days after the terrorist invasion, the MIT Technology Review published a story on “The scramble to archive Capitol insurrection footage before it disappears,” although the “global effort to save incriminating evidence raises ethical quandaries.”

The report by Tanya Basu described efforts to protect information before it disappears by Reddit users, the Bellingcat journalism site, a publicly editable Google spreadsheet of links, the Woke collective and Intelligence X, a European search engine.

Preserving information on the Capitol riot became urgent as “livestreams were turned off by platforms and broadcast news networks during the attack on the Capitol, and companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter have since systematically removed posts that violated policies against violent or incendiary content,” Basu writes.

Without the footage captured by other sources, a substantial part of it would have been lost by being erased or deleted.

Ethical Quandaries

That also creates ethical quandaries. “The data now being archived could haunt people in the photos for years to come, even if they later renounce or pay criminal penalties for their actions,” writes Basu.

It is a quandary with a long and growing history as media consider the personal consequences of their reports in a society developing new awareness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns.

The Boston Globe announced “Fresh Start,” allowing people to ask the newspaper to update or anonymize past coverage of them online. It is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequality.

It is similar to “right to forget” programs at newsrooms across the country, writes Zoe Greenberg, “meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.” Globe editor Brian McGrory said it is an attempt to address the criminal justice system’s “disproportionate impact on people of color.” To apply, people fill out a short form online with an explanation of why they are requesting a review, including relevant court documents.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a similar initiative in 2019.

Responsible, Fair, Respect

In the June, 2020 Quill Magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists former national ethics chair, Lynn Walsh, writes: “The answer is not to stop recording, reporting or take photos at protests and rallies. The answer is to do so responsibly, fairly and with respect. While images of pain, anger and excitement can be powerful, remember the people in them are experiencing these emotions in real time. Documenting this is part of our role and duty to the public and the people in these public demonstrations are an important part of the story.”

Walsh gave 14 pointers journalists should keep in mind.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been asked repeatedly for advice on this vexing problem of preserving or destroying archived information about distraught folks in the news, past or present.

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches. They want stories about them “unpublished.” Complicating the issue, companies have gone into business to help people scour themselves out of online archive data.


The AdviceLine ethics consultant, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago at the time, said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.” Ozar decided there is no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may chose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said Ozar.

Times change. And, as the Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” program shows, perspectives and media social sensitivity change. Norms change.

A Fresh Look

AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, to take a fresh look at the long-smoldering controversy over expunging information from media records or archives. A fresh look leavened with the latest ideas about journalism professionalism and social justice. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks in full:

Should news writers and editors accede to requests by the subjects of their already published stories to expunge those stories, or at least to edit them to remove the names of the subjects, in order to protect those subjects from reputational or other future harm?

Phrased in such stark terms, the answer seems straightforward. Published news pieces are in the public record. Retroactively altering them seems to amount to editing history — Winston Smith’s day job in the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Adopting it as a policy would shake, if not destroy, readers’ and listeners’ confidence in the integrity of the outlet’s reporting, and integrity is the coin of the realm in journalism. It would also open the floodgates of appeal by subjects (and their politically powerful or well-connected friends) clamoring to edit their appearance to repair or boost their “brands.” Corrections should be rare, confined to errors of fact, and prominently displayed.

Student Editor

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled such cases. In one, dating back to 2010, a student newspaper editor was approached by another student about a story in which he had been the subject. Student S. was the son of a prominent business executive who had just been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation. The article treated the son’s reaction to the news. Some days after its publication, S. called, asking that the story be taken down from the website, or at least anonymized, claiming that the article was causing him emotional distress and might be damaging to his career prospects. We discussed the matter with the editor, and reached the conclusion that it was best that the article stand, since retroactive editing would damage the paper’s reputation for integrity of reporting. The time for making decisions about what to say, and how to say it, about the subjects of the story was prior to publication — not after.

Of course, reality is commonly messier than this. Suppose the subject had been the victim of a reputational hit job by a mean-spirited (or even a “crusading”) writer or editor? Or suppose that a group of people – Blacks, indigenous people, persons of color, Muslims, Jews, etc. — had been the target of systematic insensitive reporting that was damaging to their reputations and careers? The Boston Globe recently launched an experimental initiative called “Fresh Start” that seeks to “address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life,” particularly of African Americans. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, pointed out that defendants are written about early in the criminal process. Reporters rarely follow up when the initial information turns out to be wrong or less serious than initially reported, said Benedetti. In other cases, people are convicted and serve their sentences, but when they apply for a job, articles about past misdeeds prevent them from being hired. If this amounts to an injustice, as it seems to, why not correct it by means of what I call “retrospective editing?”

When it comes to established past cases, the Globe’s initiative has some moral merit. For better or worse, we live in a world in which employers and others Google prospective employees, and even review their social media accounts, making hiring, promotion and dismissal decisions. While the blame for indiscretions on the latter might rest squarely with the account owner, the same can’t be said for what pops up when an all-seeing and indifferent search engine finds public records of that same person. Over those stories the subject may have had little or no control, and been given little input. The Globe is not accepting appeals from organizations or corporations, only individuals, and applicants must make a case that their coverage has unfairly damaged them, to have their appeal for expungement or anonymization even considered. The emendation of a small, back-page story to give its victim a clean bill of online health seems like a small price to pay.

Retrospective Editing Policy

But as an ongoing policy, having a permanent “retrospective editing” policy is inadvisable. As in our 11-year-old case, the time for considering what and how much to say about a subject, and how to say it, is before the story is published, not later. The SPJ Code of Ethics strongly emphasizes the aspect of “minimizing harm,” especially to minors, the victims of sex crimes and subjects who are incapable of giving consent or who are simply inexperienced in dealing with the press, and with appearing in it. It also encourages writers and editors to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment,” and to “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” These all address the concerns the Globe is seeking to deal with in it “Fresh Start” experiment.

But, again, these important considerations should come before the story goes to press or air. The damage to the integrity and credibility of a news outlet that was known regularly to retrospectively edit its stories would be too great to sustain, especially in a media environment like the one we have been living in for the past few years, where charges of “media bias” and “fake news” have already sadly degraded public trust in the media.

Retrospective editing is no substitute for the real thing — just like retrospective justice.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

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