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Takedown requests:
when the right to preserve history
conflicts with the desire to forget it QT13

Posted by on Sep 20, 2017 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, News, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Blog by Kristin Taylor

As more student newspapers move to digital platforms, editors and advisers are facing a new and insidious form of post-publication censorship: takedown requests.

The requests usually go something like this: “I was a student at [fill in name] high school [fill in number] years ago, and I was interviewed/wrote a story/was in a photo/made a comment that I regret now. I don’t want this showing up in Google searches. Please remove this story from your site.”

This hypothetical student may not know it, but her request is part of a much larger conversation about honoring individual privacy versus preserving the historical record. In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled individuals have a “right to be forgotten” that may supersede the right to preserve and share information via search engines like Google. This court ruling is controversial and would probably not happen in the United States; the First Amendment has strong protections for free speech and press that would likely prevent this kind of revisionism, but that doesn’t stop individuals from wishing they could take back the past.

Lawyer Mike Godwin, creator of the tongue-in-cheek “Godwin’s law,” has “been thinking longer than just about anyone else about why people can sometimes behave awfully on the Internet,” according to the Washington Post. He is skeptical that we have more “right to be forgotten” online than we do in everyday life:

“There’s this fantasy that these people have that they have control over what they say or do online,” Godwin writes. “But if I say ‘I love you’ to someone, I can’t take it back. I have no control over what happens to it after that. Words have effect in the real world that you can’t take back. That’s language’s eerie power.”

“What you see underlying the ‘right to be forgotten’ is the idea that somehow there’s a sense of yourself out in the world that you can draw boundaries around,” Godwin continues. “That, I think, is fantasy. I sympathize with the fantasy. I think it’s a natural human impulse. But the fact is that we’re connected in ways that require us to think profoundly about how we present ourselves. And we’re never going to achieve the kind of control over that that one might want in an ideal world.”

“What you see underlying the ‘right to be forgotten’ is the idea that somehow there’s a sense of yourself out in the world that you can draw boundaries around,” he continues. “That, I think, is fantasy. I sympathize with the fantasy. I think it’s a natural human impulse. But the fact is that we’re connected in ways that require us to think profoundly about how we present ourselves. And we’re never going to achieve the kind of control over that that one might want in an ideal world.”

On one level, I have sympathy for takedown requests. It’s true that we do a lot of growing in our high school years, and we do things we later regret. You only have to look at the growing number of articles and warnings about your “digital footprint” to realize this is a big issue in the Information Age. Unlike an op-ed published in a printed school paper, which is difficult to track down, an op-ed in an online paper is easily searchable. But so are a person’s social media posts and posts where others have tagged her. Our digital footprint isn’t going away, and part of being a successful 21st century citizen is learning to manage it.

I think we also need to help our students understand it’s all right to change our minds over time. Rather than insisting we have never held any other opinion or never made a mistake, we should embrace how our ideas and perspectives shift as we get older and have more experiences. Isn’t it healthier to acknowledge our past beliefs and mistakes rather than deny them? If a college admissions officer or future employer brings up an op-ed you wrote in high school, why not say, “Yes, I had a very different view back then than I do now. Let me tell you about how and why my viewpoint has changed since then.”

As sympathetic as I am to the impulse to “take it back,” I can’t support revisionist history. Part of the job of journalism is to provide a historical record — a true account of events and people from a point in time. Professional papers certainly won’t erase past articles, whether print or digital, and scholastic publications shouldn’t either except, perhaps, in extraordinary circumstances.​

As sympathetic as I am to the impulse to “take it back,” I can’t support revisionist history. Part of the job of journalism is to provide a historical record — a true account of events and people from a point in time. Professional papers certainly won’t erase past articles, whether print or digital, and scholastic publications shouldn’t either except, perhaps, in extraordinary circumstances.​

So how should we deal with these requests when they arise? JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee outlines ethical guidelines, staff manual processes and a list of suggestions and resources, one of which is this list of three takedown models for your staff manual. Using these guidelines, I worked with my editors at The Archer School for Girls to craft a takedown policy for our manual that errs on the side of preserving the historical record unless the potential harm to the person making the request outweighs all other factors. This is one possible model staffs could use as they begin to develop their own policies.

Staff Manual Model: Takedown Requests

The Oracle is a digital news source, but it is still part of Archer’s historical record. The Oracle’s primary purpose is to publish the truth, as best we can determine it, and be an accurate record of events and issues from students’ perspectives. Writers and editors use the 11 “Put Up” steps before publication to ensure the validity, newsworthiness and ethics of each article. For these reasons, the editorial board will not take down or edit past articles except in extraordinary circumstances.

If someone requests a takedown, the board will consider the following questions and actions:

  1. Does the content contain libel, inaccurate information, unwarranted invasion of privacy, obscenity or copyright infringement? If so, the editor-in-chief will remove this unprotected speech and add a corrections statement at the end of the article, as per the “Regarding Errors” policy. If, after careful investigation and discussion, the editorial board determines that the article is too heavily saturated with this unprotected speech to maintain, the board may decide to take the article down entirely. The board must come to consensus to make this decision.
  2. Does the content harm the requester so significantly that it outweighs all other factors? The editorial board will investigate this claim and weigh it against the value of an unaltered historical record. The board must come to consensus before taking down an article for this reason.
  3. If the content does not meet either of these extraordinary circumstances, it will remain posted.

Regardless of the outcome, the Editor-in-Chief will respond in writing to the request explaining the board’s action(s) and rationale for the final decision.

 

Guideline: Journalists may be asked to remove online content for any number of reasons. Just because content is unpopular or controversial does not mean a media staff should comply with such requests. When journalists meet their goal of producing consistent, responsible journalism, they likely will choose to leave the content in question online even in the face of criticism.

All media – including student media – provide a historical record of issues, events and comments. As such, content should not be changed unless there are unusual circumstances.

Another alternative to takedown demands would be to create publishing standards we would call Put Up criteria. Train student editors and staffers in why and how something should be published so takedown requests are avoided.

Key point: Source’s remorse, writer’s second-thoughts or other rethinking of existing information accessible to employers, colleges or simply to friends sometimes causes uncomfortable questions for student staffs.

What guidelines should student media staffers adapt or create that fulfills the role of historical-record, forum and source of information?

Stance: We feel there are no quick and easy answers, but plenty of ethical room for discussion and implementation of workable guidelines (not policy) that can withstand the test of time.

Reasoning/suggestions

  • In some cases, student editors may take down a story because they determine the content warrants a one-time exception (such as fabrication or to protect a source).
  • Reporters may elect to do a follow-up story.
  • If student editors choose to remove content, they should publish a note on the site explaining when and why the content was removed.
  • Takedown criteria should be outlined and explained in the staff manual.
  • Create guidelines and procedures to ensure students only post information and images they feel meet standards of responsible journalism: Put Up guidelines.

ResourcesTakedown demands? A roadmap of choices Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Respond to Takedown Demands, Student Press Law Center

Setting Criteria Before the Requests Come, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

10 Steps to a Put-Up Policy, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Audio: Takedown Requests, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute

5 Ways News Organizations Respond to ‘Unpublishing’ Requests, The Poynter Institute

Related: These points and other decisions about mission statement, forum status and editorial policy should be part of a Foundations Package that protects journalistically responsible student expression.

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Do we have the right to erase the past?
The take-down conundrum leads to debate

Posted by on May 19, 2017 in Blog, Ethical Issues | 0 comments

by Lindsay Coppens, Adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Should what is posted about us (comments, articles, photos, videos) online be under our control? Should what we publish or submit for publication online be under our control despite who owns and controls the website? Do people have the right to demand content be taken down?

Overview
Online publications, both professional and scholastic, inevitably face take-down requests, which can range from polite inquiries to angry demands. Since going online four years ago, our high school news publication has had two take-down requests: one from the subject of an article and the other from a former staff writer who wanted an opinion piece removed. Both had graduated a few years prior and had different reasons for their requests.

The first wanted a news article removed because she now identified as a different gender than she did while the focus of article. The article had nothing to do with the subject’s gender identity—the student had spearheaded a school-wide recycling program that is still in place years later.

In the other case, the former staff member requested his column be removed because he had since changed his opinion. The piece was not on a controversial topic and did not take a particularly unusual stance: he argued that students’ placement in courses they request should be based on merit, not seniority.

Luckily before any request happened the staff already had a policy in place. This policy in the staff manual, however, was not their automatic answer to the requests. But it was a jumping off point for discussion and, in one case, an intense debate among the almost 20 person editorial board.

“The Harbinger does not grant take-down requests of published material, whether the request is from the subject of an article, a former staff member, or some other entity. If a story is inaccurate, the editors will look into the matter and, if needed, publish a correction or update in the form of an editor’s note.”

The policy also ultimately gave the editorial board the confidence and support to hold strong to their decision.

Policy
The policy in the corrections section of the staff manual reads: “The Harbinger does not grant take-down requests of published material, whether the request is from the subject of an article, a former staff member, or some other entity. If a story is inaccurate, the editors will look into the matter and, if needed, publish a correction or update in the form of an editor’s note.”

Application
In each situation, the board gathered to discuss the request. In the first case (from the subject of the recycling article) the board quickly agreed not to take down the article. However, they decided to amend the piece, editing it to change the subject’s first name and pronoun to correlate with how she now identifies. They decided not to emphasize the changes in an editorial note because they thought they did not change the meaning or substance of the article, and more importantly they did not want to further draw attention to the shifting of the subject’s gender. She was satisfied with the edits and decision.

The request from the former staff member was trickier. While only a few of the editors were vaguely familiar with the writer because he graduated a few years earlier, they were initially divided in their responses to the request. Some immediately thought, “Why not? It’s his article; if he wants it removed, remove it.”

Then others brought up the point could a take-down set precedent, and would they remove any article, opinion, or review just because the writer no longer wanted it up?

Even though it’s not a news article, does his column mark a concern that was held by some at the point in time it was written (they said yes), and was it, in a way, part of the record of what happened and what was debated in our school? Does it matter that if it only was published in print, it couldn’t be expunged?

Others asserted that, in a way, print eventually disappears (except for when people hoard old papers) and something online potentially lasts and could easily be found forever.

Back and forth they discussed how years from now they, too, may be embarrassed by what they thought and wrote in high school, while others said, “Yeah, but you and others would also realize you were in high school.” They debated how former staff members could potentially be impacted when looking for jobs or simply if someone googles them.

Others laughed that maybe that gave yet another reason that they should step up their writing game. They discussed who “owns” any work created, submitted, and published by staff members (they agreed, and our editorial policy states, that the publication does).

Exasperated, at least one editor said mid-debate, “Does this really actually matter?” To which the rest resoundingly said, “Yes!”

All of this discussion resulted from a column that until that day none of them knew even existed, buried more than two years deep in the online archives. They all agreed in wondering why the heck this writer really wanted the piece taken down, and ultimately, after this rich debate about ethics, ownership, and control, they decided not to take down the piece.

Exasperated, at least one editor said mid-debate, “Does this really actually matter?” To which the rest resoundingly said, “Yes!”

They did make two suggestions to the former staff member: he could post a comment in response to the piece explaining his change of mind, or he could submit a statement of similar effect that would run with the column as an author’s note.

He was frustrated with the decision, and actually begged again to have the seemingly innocuous column removed, but the Editor in Chief kindly but firmly replied that the publication’s policy was to not honor take-down requests.

Ultimately, he submitted an author’s note: a long statement of apology for his previous opinion and thanks to the guidance department for their help while he was in high school.

Maybe he’s hoping to come back to his alma mater as a guidance intern, or maybe some college friend read it and gave him a hard time about complaining about his high school course schedule. I’ll likely never know, but I do know from analytics that only a handful of people have read that column.

I also know that his take-down request led to an invigorating editorial board debate which helped to reinforce their sense of purpose and clarify why they do what they do.

Final point
Words do have power, as do the scholastic publications that publish those words. The students who run those publications have the power and responsibility to set policy, debate policy, and ultimately make their own decisions as a team.

They and the publication will be stronger for the experience.

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Quick Hits…because you asked

Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Blog, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

by John Bowen
Because of questions asked on JEA’s listserv this week, the Scholastic Press Rights Committee reposts information and guidelines from earlier content ownership and takedown guidelines.

To repost links to these materials, we will use a new format, Quick Hits, designed to respond to questions, offer suggestions and provide resources so advisers and students can make informed decisions.

Rather than term these approaches as policy suggestions, we like to refer to them as guidelines for ethical decision making and procedures to apply the ethical process.

Here are Quick Hits responses to concerns about ownership of student media content and takedown demands.

Quick Hits: Content ownership
Question: Who owns the content of student media and why should this be a concern?

Key points/action: Advisers asked several questions this week about who should own content of student media, what the possibilities were and what steps are involved in the decision-making process.

Stancec:Deciding who owns content of student media should be an important decisions for all platforms and programs. Contained within that decision are implications for the forum concept, how content can be used and by whom and on takedown demands.

Reasoning/suggestions: Students, with input from advisers, should pick a solution that best fits their situation. The choices are students own rights to content with granting access to student media for its use or student media owns the content with access rights to students.

For multiple reasons it is not a good idea to have the school own student media content.

Resource: Who owns student-produced content?

Quick Hits: Takedown demands
Question: When and why should student media take down content, in print or online?

Key points/action: Source’s remorse, writer’s second-thoughts or other rethinking of existing information accessible to employers, colleges or simply to friends sometimes causes uncomfortable questions for student staffs.

What guidelines should student media staffers adapt or create that fulfills the role of historical-record, forum and source of information.

Stance: We feel there are no quick and easy answers, but plenty  of ethical room for discussion and implementation of workable guidelines (not policy) that can withstand the test of time.

Reasoning/suggestions: Policies are not meant to be easily changeable as are journalistic tools and process. Guidelines give flexibility for changing conditions and room for students to make ethical decisions.

ResourcesTakedown demands? A roadmap of choices

Related: These points and other decisions about mission statement, forum status and editorial policy should be part of a Foundations Package  that protects journalistically responsible student expression.

Read More

Facing takedown demands: Free Speech Week

Posted by on Oct 19, 2016 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

freespeechweek_logo_mainA recent article by the Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds brings to light free speech choices journalists sometimes have to make.

At issue are Takedown Demands. Scholastic media are not – and will not be – exempt from challenges raised by them.

Free Speech Week is a good time to check out the topic and formalize your student media’s approach to preventing issues such demands can create.

Instead of one way to react to Takedown Demands, we offer choices to help students make informed choices. In all situations, we recommend the SPLC’s existing work on the subject. We also hope these guidelines will offer a roadmap if your students face takedown decisions.

In addition, we also offer series of guideposts to evaluate information before it is posted: A Put Up policy that might prevent hard choices later.

Our guidelines look at legal demands, ethical considerations and possible reactions

Evaluating legal demands

Evaluating ethical choices

Decision models

10 steps to a “Put Up” policy

Resources

Handling online comments

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Facing takedown demands requires
thoughtful planning of guidelines

Posted by on May 3, 2015 in Blog, Digital Media, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

sprclogoBecause student media takedown demands continue to grow and the JEA listserv recently discussed issues that could be involved in information takedown,  JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee reposts guidelines to assist students and their advisers who face these requests.

We agree with the Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte who said the SPLC has shied away from telling people a ”right way” to handle takedown requests, leaving the decision to their editorial discretion.

So, instead of a single guideline, we offer this set of resources to help students make informed choices.

In all situations, we recommend the SPLC’s existing work on the subject. We hope these guidelines will offer a roadmap if your students face takedown decisions.

Even more importantly, we believe in establishing guidelines to evaluate information before it is posted: Put Up recommendations might prevent facing unsatisfactory decisions later because a 15-year-old did not consider the implications of an ill-chosen comment or questionable image.

We urge advisers to train student reporters to verify information and use credible and reliable sources as more effective approach than taking down content.

If students decide information must come down, this resource from The Poynter Institute suggests thoughtful alternatives to just taking something down.

Below is a model ethics-staff manual statement, as part of our Foundations of Journalism policy-ethics-staff manual package. Such a statement or one similar, should be part of student media’s ethical guidelines and staff manuals.

Takedown requests
Ethical guidelines
Journalists may be asked to remove online content for any number of reasons. Just because content is unpopular or controversial does not mean a media staff should comply with such requests. When journalists meet their goal of producing consistent, responsible journalism, they likely will choose to leave the content in question online even in the face of criticism.

All media – including student media – provide a historical record of issues, events and comments. As such, content should not be changed unless there are unusual circumstances.

Staff manual process
Content should not be removed unless the student editorial board determines it is factually inaccurate or was otherwise factually, legally deficient at the time of publication. The staff manual should provide a checklist or guide students can use to determine whether a takedown request has merit.

Suggestions
• In some cases, student editors may take down a story because they determine the content warrants a one-time exception (such as fabrication or to protect a source).
• Reporters may elect to do a follow-up story.
• If student editors choose to remove content, they should publish a note on the site explaining when and why the content was removed.
• Takedown criteria should be outlined and explained in the staff manual.
• Create guidelines and procedures to ensure students only post information and images they feel meet standards of responsible journalism: Put Up guidelines.

Resources
5 Ways News Organizations Respond to ‘Unpublishing’ Requests, The Poynter Institute
Takedown Demands: Here is a Roadmap of Choices, Rationale, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee
Respond to Takedown Demands, Student Press Law Center
Setting Criteria Before the Requests Come, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee
10 Steps to a Put-Up Policy, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee
Audio: Takedown Requests, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute

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