Sunday, 10 February 2013

Taking a leaf out of history

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The standard tip usually given to anyone unwittingly caught up in the news was to simply let the story blow over. But with news stories remaining online it’s now almost impossible for them to get on with their lives without that chapter coming back to haunt them. So, should online news stories be edited to suit changing circumstances?

I made the other side of the news once. It wasn’t a huge story. I was sacked from my job for some inappropriate tweets and next day my demise was reported in The Australian’s Media section.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story now, but when it happened my face might as well have been on the front page of every newspaper with the word ‘paedophile’ splashed across the top of the page.

I didn’t answer the phone for fear of it being a journalist. This wasn’t long after Catherine Deveney’s sacking from Fairfax for her social media conduct and I was concerned the media’s obsession with Twitter-led downfalls would be of interest to The Age and Crikey.

I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, wrongly thinking that there was widespread interest in the situation I found myself in. It sounds like a silly overreaction now, but combined with losing a job I loved and the fear that my name was mud in an industry with few alternatives, it pushed me into a pretty dark place.

I was also aware that this story will never go away.

So I could imagine (and only imagine) what personal hell London nurse Jacintha Saldanha went through before she took her own life as a result of being a victim of the now infamous 2Day FM prank call to the King Edward VII hospital. I’m sure you know the story.

While the prank appeared to be the catalyst for her death, would it have had such tragic consequences if it hadn’t become fodder for social media and the dozens of journalists on Kate-watch struggling to fill column inches? Would she still be alive today if she didn’t feel the whole world was watching, judging and ridiculing her?

Sadly, Mrs Saldanha took her life before the story had a chance to blow over, though it was never going to disappear.

Gone is the day when today’s news becomes tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. Thanks to search engines and online archives today’s news can come back to sink its fangs into someone’s arse years after the event and when they least expect it.

We can run from the spotlight, but we can’t hide.

Which makes me wonder – how many other Jacintha Saldanhas are out there; who managed to ride out the first storm only to be hit by a rogue wave?

And what responsibilities do media organisations have to ensure old stories archived on their websites continue to fairly represent the people involved and their circumstances?

As the editor of a number of suburban newspapers, this is a question I’ve had to consider several times this year when receiving calls to remove old stories from our websites.

There are two schools of thought about removing online content.

One is: we wouldn’t rip pages out of archived newspapers, so why should we alter the record online?

The other is: unlike dead-tree copy, we have the ability to change online content, should there be any issues.

I believe in a horses-for-courses approach.

One of the stories we were asked to remove was a real estate feature. It was one of those house-of-the-week yarns featuring the vendors showing off the home’s features. The story ran a couple of years ago, but for some reason the house was pulled from the market. Now the vendors wanted to sell again and were concerned the price featured in the 2010 story, considerably less than what they wanted now, would influence bidders.

After some discussion with the online editor I decided not to pull or edit the story. House prices are an important guide to local history and any savvy buyer would know how the market has tracked during the past few years. I knew that wouldn’t make the couple feel any better.

A few weeks later I received another call from the sister of a man whose ex-wife was featured in a story about single mums losing on-campus accommodation at a local university. The 2009 story featured a picture of a woman and her toddler facing eviction. The story mentioned how she had left her previous home because of abuse. It was a passing line; however the abuse was not from her ex-husband, who is the child’s father, but from a subsequent relationship.

The sister argued that anyone finding that story online could recognise the child and think her brother was responsible for the abuse.

I decided to remove the picture and delete that line about the abusive relationship, which wasn’t central to the story. This removed any implication about the child’s father but kept an important issue on the record.

Other such calls included:

  • The restaurant owner whose establishment was bagged in a food review two years before he took over the business but was still online for potential customers to see 
  • The guy who started a protest group against a half-way house in his neighbourhood and two years down the track realised his concerns were unfounded and made him appear petty 
  • The mum worried about a five-year-old story mentioning her son going to court for assault but with no follow up on the outcome 
  • The club cricketer who didn’t like the picture we had of him and wanted to send us a better one (there was nothing wrong with the picture). 

Some of these requests were justified, some weren’t. The last thing busy editors need is to have to deal with frivolous requests to change copy purely out of self-interest. But when a story has the potential to have a lasting impact someone’s life, should we allow them to move on?

We can’t change history, but these days it’s no longer hidden in yellowing newsprint archives and microfiche.

The kid who faced court might have got off and turned his life around. But online, and to any curious potential employers, partners and even his children, he’ll forever be the bloke charged with assault.

He might be totally oblivious that the story is still out there until he misses out on a dream job. Suddenly he feels the world is focusing on his past and will never shake it off. Then, years after getting through the toughest period of his life, he’s there in the darkness again, all because of a 10cm brief which a journalist had cut, pasted, and tweaked from a police media press release, then quickly forgot.

What if, after everything he’s been through, this is the final straw that puts him in the same terrible place that Jacintha Saldanha spent her final hours?

I believe this is a conversation that news organisations should be having. I’m sure many editors and publishers wouldn’t budge on this, but I believe we should at least be prepared to take advantage of the flexibility that digital media affords us.

Even if the copy isn’t changed, is it unreasonable to add a footnote such as, “the accused in this story was found not guilty” or “this restaurant is under new management” if asked?

People and circumstances change, why shouldn’t the record reflect this?

How to request online subhead be deleted or changed:

  • Don’t call up while angry, it just puts editors on the defensive and makes them less likely to be sympathetic.
  • Don’t threaten legal action on privacy grounds – you’ll have no hope and it just puts editors on the defensive and makes them far less likely to be sympathetic.
  • Explain how the story is having or can have a negative impact. Don’t assume it’s obvious.
  • Think of a compromise before you call, such as removing a line or adding a disclaimer rather than deleting the whole story.
  • If the editor says they don’t have easy access to the story to make changes, they probably don’t.

David Bonnici

David Bonnici is a journalist, editor and blogger at

Follow David on Twitter: @clubwah