Student guest post: The question of removing news after publication

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Tyler Confoy is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying reporting and philosophy. In the future, she hopes to write features for a monthly, biweekly or weekly publication.

Should editors remove controversial material after it’s been published?

I’ve encountered this question twice in the past few months. Both times, it was posed as a hypothetical, meant to get journalism students thinking about what they might do in a real-world situation.

Many times the question is an ethical one. If no legal problem is involved, the question becomes “Should we remove this?” instead of “Do we have to remove this?” Ultimately, it’s up to the publication.

I’ve encountered journalists who are steadfast in their belief that accuracy is accuracy and that things should rarely be taken down. I’ve heard it explained this way: “If it happened, it happened.” Personally, I tend to side with these journalists. My reasoning is that if you compromise one post, you might start compromising other posts.

I’d like to look into a case that’s been of wide public interest recently. Soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Dec. 14, The Journal News, a newspaper covering New York’s Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, published interactive maps showing the locations and names of permit holders licensed by Westchester and Rockland counties to own a handgun. The Journal News was able to do this under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Responses to the maps were both positive and negative. Many said they were an invasion of permit holders’ privacy. On Jan. 15, New York passed the NY SAFE Act, putting tighter obligations on gun ownership but also allowing more privacy for gun permit holders. On Jan. 18, Janet Hasson, publisher of The Journal News, released a letter saying that the website had removed the maps. (Snapshots of the maps< remain on The Journal News website.)

In the letter, Hasson wrote, “As a news organization, we are constantly defending the public’s right to know. Consequently we do not endorse the way the legislature has chosen to limit public access to gun permit data. … But we are not deaf to voices who have said that new rules should be set for gun permit data.”

Politico reported that in a statement released also on Jan. 18, Hasson said, “While the new law does not require us to remove the data, we believe that doing so complies with its spirit. … We remain committed to our mission of providing the critical public service of championing free speech and open records.”

These two viewpoints put forth by Hasson don’t quite match up. Why would The Journal News believe in complying with the legislation’s spirit — in fact with the portion of the legislation that protects permit holders’ privacy — if it does not agree with limited public access to data concerning permit holders?

In addition to pointing out the new legislation, Hasson defended the maps’ removal by writing that they had already been seen by those who wanted to see them and that eventually the data presented in the maps would change anyway. This seems logical: If the maps were national news, surely they’d been seen by local folks, and surely information changes.

But it seems more like an excuse. Most journalists don’t take something down within a month just because most people who care have seen it, and it’s understood that information changes with time. These maps were a historical part of the Journal News coverage in the midst of a national gun crisis, and they could have remained online.

It is certainly hard to blame Hasson. The Journal News’ writers were being threatened. Home addresses were published. And maybe the new legislation just pressured Hasson to recognize the ethical dilemma that had been there all along (if not by law, at least in theory): the struggle between freedom of the press and the right to privacy. But ultimately this struggle should have been recognized beforehand.

Having the ability to remove published information is a nice safety net, but journalists and publishers should look at every angle of possible reception and take a definite stance before they publish anything — and perhaps especially before they publish something clearly controversial.

The Journal News initially stood by its decision to post the maps. Then it removed the maps. Will it compromise something else next?