Canadian media grapple with requests to ‘unpublish’ articles

Story subjects worry that past stories could affect job prospects

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

Maggie and Tim: A residential school survivor and her son who died on Chilliwack’s streets

Part one of a two-part series on a young man’s tragic death and his mother’s survival through hardship

LETTER: MLA responds to story on flooding in the Columbia valley

‘My constituents can be assured that I will always work hard for them’

Chilliwack volunteer recognized by peers after being ineligible for volunteer-of-the-year award

Members of Back Country Horsemen honoured Rose Schroeder for her hard work, dedication to community

UPDATE: Sto:lo protest in support of Wet’suwet’en shuts down busiest intersection in Chilliwack

Protesters escorted by RCMP in organized event that included speeches and songs at Luckakuck/Vedder

Vocal groups come together for intimate concert in Chilliwack

Belle Voci and the Chilliwack Children’s and Youth Choir will be performing at St John’s Anglican

Budget 2020: ICBC ‘dumpster fire’ to turn into $86M surplus, NDP say

ICBC operating with $91-million deficit for 2019-2020 fiscal year

Teen snowmobiler from Kelowna found after air force’s overnight search

The teen had been missing since just after 6 p.m. on Monday

Two law enforcement trucks ‘deliberately’ set on fire in northern B.C., RCMP say

Police say they have video evidence of a person in the area of the truck fires

Nanaimo man wins lotto, plans to buy $16,000 fridge

Curtis Wright a winner in Lotto 6/49 draw

Metro Vancouver wants the region to repurpose, donate, or repair used clothing

Textile mending workshops to be held across the Lower Mainland

Three protesters arrested after blocking driveway at premier’s home

Protestors claimed they would make a citizen’s arrest of the Premier, according to West Shore RCMP

Suspect in Surrey forcible confinement arrested in Toronto

Constable Richard Wright, of the Surrey RCMP, said William Daniels-Sey was arrested on Feb. 16

Budget 2020: B.C. adds tax to sweet drinks and sodas

All soda, vending machine drinks will be subject to higher PST

Budget 2020: B.C. unveils new grant for students, phases out debt-relief program

For the first time, diploma, certificate students qualify for yearly post-secondary grant

Most Read