Information on the internet lasts forever, which is a good reason not to rewrite history.
It happens nearly every week.
Readers call or email with what seems like a simple request: Will we please remove their name, or picture or real estate transaction from our website, YourObserver.com?
To which I answer, as politely as possible: No.
But before I tell them why, I usually say this first: I understand.
I understand that, be it curiosity or some other reason, most people who are calling have put their names into Google and hit “search,” only to find results pop up from our website that they may not have known were on the internet, or they no longer want anyone to be able to find on the internet.
The types of reasons vary: They’re pictured with a significant other who is no longer a significant other; they don’t like that the first Google result lists their name, address and for how much they bought or sold their house; or they were at an event they don’t want permanently tied to their name, such as a political event, for example.
It’s easy to understand how, when someone agrees to have his or her picture taken, he or she may not have thought about the permanency of that decision.
To be sure, the internet has opened up a whole new world of information to us because it archives that information in a lasting way. But that permanent archiving means making things go away once they are published is becoming harder and harder.
When you think about it, it’s not really an Observer problem, it’s a Google problem. It’s not that we have published it, it’s that Google readily finds it for others. But good luck trying to get Google to remove something from a search — it will point you back to us to remove it.
So why don’t we just take it down?
For us, it’s a deeper matter than making a change to a website. It’s a decision rooted in protecting the integrity of our content and our credibility as a news organization.
As journalists, we take what we publish seriously, whether it’s reporting what school board members said at a meeting or a photo of you and your dog at an event at the park. As our name states, we are there to observe and report what is happening in the community. By asking us to remove part of that record, we are essentially altering what we said happened.
Now, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but think about the repercussions if we granted requests to remove content from our website. How can we say it’s a credible accounting of events if we remove things just because people don’t want them published? What if it’s a quote that someone just wishes we didn’t report? What if it’s a crime we wrote about that a person was involved in that he or she doesn’t want public? What if that someone is a public official? How do we defend our reporting if we are willing to change it after the fact?
The answer is simple: We can’t. That lies at the heart of our policy: Just like we can’t remove information from the printed page, we don’t remove it from our website.
To protect the integrity of our content and the record of what we reported, there is only one exception to altering it after it has been published, and that’s for the sake of accuracy.
If we have reported something incorrectly — something factual — we absolutely want to know about it, and we want to correct it as soon as possible. But even in these cases, we note in the online story that it has been updated to reflect the correct information. We need to make sure readers know we had previously inaccurate information in our article, and we want to tell them specifically what it was so they know why it was changed. Again, this is standard journalistic protocol — to preserve trust, we can’t just change things online. We need to be accountable and transparent so readers know why and what has been altered.
To some, it may seem this policy would make sense to protect news content, but is it really necessary for social photos and community events?
One reader recently was upset we wouldn’t remove an image of him from 2015. He said he understood the policy, but his photo wasn’t newsworthy, so was it really such a big deal to take it down?
The problem is we never know when something will be newsworthy.
For example, one day we saw a huge spike in traffic online from a photo gallery dated 2014. We had no idea why that particular gallery was getting hundreds of views online until I started getting phone calls from national news organizations asking for permission to use a particular photo in it.
This was the day the Jared Fogle (the Subway guy) was arrested on child pornography charges. Apparently, we were the only website that had a picture of Fogle and his wife, from a benefit they attended in Sarasota the year before.
Yet another reason you don’t want to compromise your content — you never know what might be newsworthy in the future.
Kat Hughes is executive editor of the Longboat, Sarasota, Siesta Key and East County Observers.