Canadian media grapple with requests to ‘unpublish’ articles

Story subjects worry that past stories could affect job prospects

Canadian media grapple with requests to ‘unpublish’ articles

The relief Martin Streete felt the day he walked out of court a free man erodes with every click of Google’s search button.

Every time he researches his name, he’s confronted with a 2011 headline announcing criminal charges he never had to face in court.

Streete said he was arrested in 2011 after an alleged sexual assault in Regina, because he matched the description provided by the complainant. Less than a year later, the charges against him were stayed and the matter was dropped.

But local newspaper reports of the initial arrest cost Streete his job and, he said, continue to limit his employment prospects years later.

“These articles, they’re damaging,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Regina. “I think that’s the main reason I couldn’t get back to work right away because employers, before they even interview, they do searches.”

It’s an issue that Canada’s most prominent media ethics body is looking into. The National NewsMedia Council, a self-regulatory body for English-language news outlets in all provinces except Quebec and Alberta, recently began surveying its more than 500 members on how to field cases like Streete’s.

READ: Report to offer ‘ideas’ for stemming crisis in Canada’s media sector: author

Council President John Fraser said media outlets are increasingly grappling with requests from individuals calling for their names to be scrubbed from previously published articles. Unlike some jurisdictions, Canada has no formal guidelines in place to address such situations.

In Europe, for instance, a 2014 ruling from the top court of the European Union allows citizens to ask for the removal of personal data that “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” The content would remain online, but Google would make it difficult for the material to be found through its search engine.

Three years after the ruling — known as “Right to be Forgotten” — Google said it had processed 1.5 million requests to delist a URL, a third of which it had granted.

The federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner has undertaken a review to see if a similar approach should be adopted in Canada. A spokeswoman said the office invited submissions from academics, advocacy groups, IT specialists, educators and regular Canadians, and a report will be published early next year.

“We’ll be using what we learn to inform public debate on online reputation, to better inform Parliament on the issues and potential solutions and also to develop our own policy position on the right to be forgotten and other forms of recourse in the Canadian context,” Tobi Cohen said in an email.

Google made a submission saying some of the URLs it has processed have belonged to “reputable” news sources. The tech giant said any measures implemented in Canada need to come with transparency mechanisms, suggesting that the search engine might not be best equipped to assess the merit of a de-listing request.

“By putting the responsibility on the search engine to judge what is required to be ‘forgotten’ under European laws, and without affordances to share information with the publisher or indeed the public about a removal request, the public cannot analyse the full impact on the public interest of delisting a URL,” Google Canada wrote in its submission.

“And the incentives for search engines under European laws are skewed towards removal. If a search engine wrongly takes down a particular page, that page falls out of its results; if it wrongly refuses to take down a page, the search engine can be subject to civil judgments or regulatory penalties.”

The National NewsMedia Council joined with several other media industry groups to make a submission of their own, arguing that a “Right to be Forgotten” approach in Canada is an infringement on press freedom and the federal Charter of Rights.

Likening the approach to leaving library books on the shelf while removing listings from its card catalogue, the groups argued that neither tech companies nor governments should decide what material stays online.

“In an open society this is the prerogative of individual citizens, participating in a free marketplace of ideas, who are perfectly capable of deciding such questions for themselves,” the Council’s submission reads.

Still, Fraser said the industry must grapple with the issue and suggest best practices for outlets to follow. He said a prevalent school of thought dictates that changing factually accurate articles is tantamount to rewriting history, but added that the realities of the online world suggest a need to find a middle ground.

“We have to come to some kind of best practice somehow if we’re going to be honourable and ethical in our business,” he said.

Several Canadian newspapers currently do not “unpublish” material, but treat requests to alter or reclassify content on a case-by-case basis. The Globe and Mail’s code of conduct, for instance, indicates the paper’s current practice is to assess such requests by committee, with senior editors and lawyers evaluating the individual situation. The paper said it “generally does not unpublish content or remove details such as names from our websites and archives other than for legal reasons, but it does correct and update articles as necessary if there is a significant factual error.”

The approach is similar at the Toronto Star, according to Public Editor Kathy English. In instances where charges have been withdrawn, English said the paper will prominently append an update to the top of the original article. The same practice is currently in place at the National Post, according to Gerry Nott, senior vice-president of content.

“We’re not in the unpublishing business, but we are in the fairness business,” Nott said in a statement.

The Canadian Press also does not believe in “unpublishing” material, according to Editor-in-Chief Stephen Meurice. When the news agency becomes aware of a substantial change in a story it produced, it confirms the development before sending a publishable note to its media clients that they can append to the story. The Canadian Press does not publish material directly to the public, but only through the media outlets that subscribe to it.

English, who said she fields one or two such requests a week, acknowledged the issue is a challenging one for the industry to navigate.

“I think one of the solutions to this happens earlier on in the process when we consider what we publish,” she said. “Perhaps we could be moving to a place where we don’t publish things that we know we do not have resources or intention to follow through on.”

English acknowledged that some news outlets have opted to omit names from stories with slim follow-up prospects. Some papers, such as weekly Metroland publications Brampton Guardian and Mississauga News, said they would consider altering existing stories to remove names of people who have criminal charges withdrawn before the matter comes to trial.

Editor-in-Chief Patricia Lonergan said such alterations are always accompanied by a prominently displayed editor’s note disclosing that a name has been removed and explaining the reason why. She said her papers have established an “ethics committee” that uses internal guidelines to assess the growing number of requests to remove content.

“The underlying philosophy is that news organizations do not rewrite history or make news disappear,” Lonergan said. “However, life isn’t that simple.”


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Local poet and VIU professor Sonnet L’Abbé wrote and performed a song as part of the city’s Reimagine Nanaimo campaign. (Photo courtesy City of Nanaimo/Port Theatre)
Poet pens song as part of city’s Reimagine Nanaimo campaign

Sonnet L’Abbé encourages a friend to move to the city in ‘Nazaneen: A Song for Nanaimo’

Const. Joshua Waltman brings knowledge gained from working with people experiencing homelessness in Surrey to his new role as the RCMP’s mental health liaison officer in Nanaimo where he will work with people from across society who find themselves struggling with mental health crisis. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo RCMP’s mental health liaison says his role will take persistence and resilience

Const. Joshua Waltman talks about limiting anxiety and gaining trust of people in mental crises

Janice Perrino, Nanaimo and District Hospital Foundation CEO, holds information brochures for the Light the Trees campaign, part of an effort to raise $5 million for the new intensive care unit at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Million-dollar donation has Light the Trees campaign off to a bright start in Nanaimo

Windsor Plywood Foundation supports Nanaimo and District Hospital Foundation

Regional District of Nanaimo will be receiving $1.17 million from the B.C. government in COVID-19 safe restart grant money. (News Bulletin file)
Regional District of Nanaimo directors getting started on budgeting decisions

Proposed tax requisitions for 2021 range from 7.3-per cent increase to 2.2-per cent decrease

Mary Cox and Jack Plant dance in their pyjamas and slippers at the morning pyjama dance during the Rhythm Reelers’ 25 Annual Rally in the Valley Square Dance Festival in Chilliwack on June 4, 2011. Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 is Square Dancing Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5

Square Dancing Day, Disability Day and International Ninja Day are all coming up this week

A rendering of a restaurant building making up part of a development permit application for 113 and 161 Island Highway in Parksville. (IAG Developments image)
Development application delayed for high-profile Parksville property

Council refers restaurant/RV campground application to staff for further improvements

Qualicum Beach resident Harold MacDougall won $75,000 off a Casino Royale II Scratch & Win ticket, purchased the ticket at Qualicum Foods on Memorial Avenue. (BCLC photo)
Qualicum Beach man $75K richer thanks to scratch-and-win ticket windfall

Winner plans on trips to Cape Breton and Scotland

West Vancouver Island’s Ehattesaht First Nation continues lock down after 9 active cases were reported today after a visitor tested positive last week. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Ehattesaht First Nation’s COVID-19 nightmare: nine active cases, a storm and a power outage

The Vancouver Island First Nation in a lockdown since the first case was reported last week

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson takes her oaths of office virtually on Thursday. (B.C. Government YouTube screen shot)
Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson named B.C.’s mental health and addictions minister

Malcolmson succeeds Judy Darcy, who did not seek re-election

Vees goalkeeper Yaniv Perets stands watch while Tyler Ho takes the puck around the back of the net on Nov. 7. The BCHL press release did not name the player who tested positive.(Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Penticton Vees quarantining after player tests positive for COVID-19

The team, staff and billets are isolating while they are tested

A photo from 2017, of Nuchatlaht First Nation members outside court after filing a land title case in B.C. ( Submitted photo/Nuchatlaht First Nation).
Vancouver Island First Nation calls on B.C. to honour UNDRIP in historic title case

Nuchatlaht First Nation says Crown counsel continues to stall the case using the ‘distasteful’ argument that the Nation ‘abandoned’ their land

Police in Nanaimo never know what they’ll encounter when called upon to check on the well-being of people. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo RCMP find ‘heart-breaking’ circumstances during wellness checks

Police offer sampling of outcomes from well-being checks over recent weeks

Most Read