I had a lot of fun in college. Unfortunately, that “fun” included doing many stupid things. I cringe when I think back on some of the poor decisions I made while I was in undergrad. I also am thankful that social media didn’t exist back then and none of my stupid choices resulted in life-long consequences.
Not every college student is so fortunate, nor are their decisions always relatively harmless ones that affect only themselves.
One of the functions you fulfill as a student journalist is to create a historical record of your university during a given timeframe. Fulfilling this function means you report on everything newsworthy that happens during your tenure.
Putting an increasing amount of this content online creates a new issue for journalists, including those on college campuses. The problem is when people want content removed from your student media website.
Advisers and student journalists report students asking for content to be removed for reasons including that the content:
- makes them “look bad,”
- appears in internet searches and harms their ability to become employed,
- no longer reflects their views, and/or
- is inaccurate.
Because this issue seems to arise regularly, it is important for your staff to have guidelines in the form of a policy that explains how to handle content removal from your student media website or its archives.
Things to consider when drafting a content removal policy:
What is content?
Content could be anything posted on your student media website or its social media companions. Content may include news stories, photos, commentary, announcements, comments, social media updates, and/or items provided to the publication by others like police blotters, wedding announcements, obituaries, etc.
Before you can decide whether content will be removed, you need to determine exactly what content means to you and your staff.
Is there ever a time when content should be removed?
I chatted with student editors about this topic recently. They agreed that content should not be removed, with one exception. All of the student editors I discussed content removal with said content should be deleted if it puts a person in legitimate danger. They said the legitimacy of the danger and whether removing the content would eliminate it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
When would an editor’s note be added?
Adding an editor’s note often is seen as an alternative to removing content.
For example, alum Jon Dough contacts your office and wants a story removed from the newspaper archives about him being arrested in relation to a sexual assault investigation a decade ago. Dough later was cleared as a suspect and never charged, which, of course, a staff before yours reported. However, Dough says the story about the arrest is harming his ability to attain employment. He says it comes up first when potential employers search his name, but the story about his innocence is lower in the search feed and often gets ignored.
This seems like an excellent example of when you might want to add an editor’s note. Dough was arrested, so you probably would not want to delete that story completely. It’s part of the historical record. But you could add an editor’s note to the arrest story explaining that Dough never was charged and linking to that story.
How should removal requests be made?
Your content removal policy should include how specifically a person should contact the staff if he/she wants to request that an item be removed. You should be able to eliminate many of these requests by simply posting your content removal policy on your website and making it easy to locate. But, if a person still wants to request removal or correction, you need to explain how they should do so.
How should removal requests be processed?
You content removal policy also should state who is responsible for making decisions on requests and how the person will be contacted regarding that decision.
Content removal is not something I generally support, but I hate using words like “always” or “never.” It just seems unlikely that we could imagine every possible scenario when someone might ask for content to be removed. Creating a content removal policy for your student media outlet, if you don’t have one already, should make it easier to know how to deal with content removal requests.