Post grapples with how to 'unpublish' and correct the record

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By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nearly 23 years ago, The Post's Metro section reported that Joseph P. Unice, a chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service, had been charged with indecent exposure at a Woodbridge McDonald's. But The Post never reported what happened next.

According to Unice, a judge quickly concluded that the incident had been inadvertent and the case went no further. As he recounted it last week, he'd forgotten to wear an athletic supporter while running and his gym shorts were too revealing for several patrons at the McDonald's where he stopped afterward. "It wasn't intentional," Unice said.

He hired an attorney and got the charges expunged, so there is no public record, he said. His career with the U.S. Marshals Service continued until he retired in 2003. "I just let it go," said Unice, now 65 and living in the western Ohio community of Miamisburg.

But last year, when he started looking for jobs to supplement his retirement income, Unice said prospective employers Googled his name and found the two brief stories The Post had written in 1987 -- not on The Post's Web site but on research Web sites that archive Post stories. "They won't hire me," he said. "I never realized that 23 years later it would come back to haunt me."

He wants the stories to disappear. Google says that removing news stories is up to the Web site that published them. That's why Unice contacted The Post. "I'm really in need of your help," he pleaded, noting that he can't point employers to court records because they were expunged.

News Web sites such as The Post's increasingly hear from people who want information "unpublished." In rare instances, requests are granted. For example, The Post deleted a woman's name as the purchaser of a home because she feared being located by a stalker.

Most requests are simply efforts to avoid embarrassment. Occasionally it's so-called "source remorse," when someone The Post quoted wants to revise their comments to make them more articulate. Or it's a request to remove a news brief about a drunken driving conviction.

The Post properly rejects these. Altering a newspaper's historical record, which lives in digital databases and is relied on for research, can erode credibility.

But a growing number of requests to unpublish are like the one from Unice, where the issue is fairness.

"What's surprising is how few news organizations have policies to deal with things like this," said Mallary Jean Tenore, who has examined the issue for the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida.

The Post has no written policies. Requests are handled ad hoc throughout the newsroom, with some referred to Post attorneys. They are not tracked, so The Post has no firm grasp on the volume or types of requests being made. And readers are left in the dark about The Post's rules on unpublishing or even how they might submit a request.

A brief reference to unpublishing is included in a draft of updated corrections guidelines that is being reviewed by top Post editors. It reads: "We generally won't 'unpublish' or simply remove articles or blog posts after discovering an error. We can republish a corrected version as soon as possible, with the acknowledgement of the original error."

Senior Editor Milton Coleman, who helped develop the guidelines, said that when dealing with requests to unpublish, "Our general approach has been to say that something that occurred was fact, we reported it and we cannot and should not act like it did not occur. But since these things live forever online, we can correct the record online, and that is what we will do."

That makes sense. But what about cases where the material is accurate but incomplete? What of situations where The Post reported the charge, but not the dismissal of it? What about fairness to those who were accused but later vindicated?

The Post's guidelines for these situations should make clear not only which types of unpublishing requests should be granted but also the range of remedies. When is it best to order a follow-up story that links to the original one? Is it permissible to simply post an "update" atop an archived online story, noting later developments? And what is the level of proof that is required from people like Unice in order to convince The Post that a criminal charge went away?

All of these guidelines for unpublishing should be spelled out to the newsroom. But just as important, they should be explained to readers on The Post's Web site. Readers appreciate transparency, which builds loyalty and trust.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at For daily updates, read the Omblog.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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