How should news organizations handle requests to alter their online archives? Most just say ‘no,’ according to a survey of newspaper executives, which found that 95% of respondents consider their print and digital archives to be a “historical record” that should not be changed. As one respondent put it:
There have been several cases and we have refused in each one, citing the historical nature of the archives. We cannot alter what we published. We can and do amend what we publish, but we won’t try to change what’s already there.
But the survey of Southern Newspaper Publishers Association members conducted in 2007 found that some requests might be considered favorably, depending on the circumstances. More than 20% of respondents said they would remove a photo of a child in a hypothetical case in which the mother said the girl was getting suggestive messages from an online predator. Researcher Doug Fisher says the study spotlights an important issue:
Of most concern, only a third of the editors and publishers said they had a policy for dealing with requests to remove material. Given how quickly things move in this digital age, if you don’t have one, it’s probably time to think about it.
The correction policies that do exist vary widely, according to the study.
Even if an error is substantiated, only 84% said they would publish a correction in the print newspaper. As for online corrections, 25% said they would put a correction in a separate area, 32% said they would correct the story but not put a note with it referencing the change, and 49% said they would correct it and leave a note. (The numbers add up to more than 100% because respondents could choose more than one option.)
The study did not include TV newsrooms, but previous research indicates that even more of them lack formal policies covering on air corrections. Fisher’s right: it’s high time every newsroom had a plan for handling corrections in both the legacy medium and online.