Digital/Web Archives Create Thorny Ethics Questions

By: Steve Outing

Newspaper librarians have been dealing with digital archiving for some time now, with Web news archives the latest wrinkle. And in a fast-moving environment like digital publishing, ethics issues must constantly be addressed.

An interesting issue is what to do about mistakes and libelous content that appeared at original publication. When you discover a mistake in a news article, what do you do with the digital archive record? How do you fix a mistake when an article is going to be kept on a Web site for a number of days or weeks before the piece is taken off the Web and put in an electronic archive? And what do you do with a story that has been judged to be libelous? Remove it from the digital archive so as to mitigate further damage?

To answer these thorny questions and to see if the news industry has yet developed a consensus about how to deal with these issues, last week I surveyed some experts in the field. What I found, in general, is a rough consensus among newspaper library professionals and editors. Outside of newspapers, online-only news editors do not always think in the same way.

The sanctity of the archive

Most librarians stand firm in the concept that an archive is a record of what has been published and should include exactly what originally was published -- even if that includes a mistake or a libelous statement. Says Leondard Levine, a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert in computer ethics, "My basic belief is that if someone sees your work at any phase in its public life, the copy they saw should be retained in the archive someplace. ... Once it has been seen (published) it should be frozen in place."

With that tenet in mind, the majority of librarians handle corrections or clarifications to digitally archived copy by adding correction notices at the top of an erroneous story (or in the case of libelous text, a retraction indicating that a court ruled the article to be libelous).

It's better to go even one step further, posting a correction not only at the top of an archived story, but also repeating the correction at the actual offending line(s). Some librarians advocate highlighting or striking through the erroneous text. This way, the original wording is maintained, but the error is certain not to be perpetuated.

(Remember that a phrase in a story may be found via a search, and the user in some cases will be directed straight to the searched-for phrase. He may not even see the top of the story, where a correction might be posted. This is a weakness at several newspaper archiving systems that I ran across. Corrections are posted at the top of a story or noted in the header, where they may not be seen by an archive user doing a keyword search.)

News ethics expert Lucinda Davenport, associate professor and assistant director of Michigan State University's School of Journalism, emphasizes that if a correction is warranted, it must be made obvious in the digital archive. "After all," she says, "it is important to set the record -- and history -- straight. ... An obvious correction is needed so that other media professionals and individuals do not continue to repeat the incorrect information."

The Web changes the archive picture somewhat on those sites where an article is kept online for many days or weeks before being transferred to a permanent digital archive. If a mistake is discovered shortly after a story has been posted on a Web site, most librarians advocate following a similar correction strategy to that described above. A correction should be pre-pended to the erroneous story, and the correction noted in highlighted text at the point of the actual mistake.

Most of the librarians I heard from believe that once a story has been published, it is unethical to go into the original Web story and simply make the correction such that subsequent readers are unaware that the original story was in error. It's worth noting that librarians, who have been trained to think about such issues, sometimes have no control over how a news Web site's editors handle corrections to content that is maintained on a Web site. I found librarians who admitted that they did not know how their Web site colleagues handled this issue. Other papers have a policy of keeping archived stories (including post-publication corrections) in synch with what's on their news Web site.

What about libel?

The same sort of thing applies to articles or phrases in articles that have been judged to be libelous. Most publishers who have thought through the issue will keep the original libelous phrase in the original copy, with a retraction attached to the offending language and probably a note acknowledging that a court found the text to be libelous.

What if a court ordered a publisher to delete a libelous story or phrase from a paper's Web site or digital archive? Most librarians I contacted hoped that their news organizations would resist such a move, though in practice it's likely that a publisher might succumb to court pressue. Derek Donovan of the Kansas City Star says that before his tenure as library director, the paper had on rare occasions voluntarily removed stories from the archives because of libel or potential libel problems. No one I contacted could think of a case where a judge had ordered that a libelous story be removed from an electronic archive. (Given the growth of digital archives, now mainstream because of the Web, I predict that this will happen before too long.)

"I feel that what is printed, is printed," says Seth Effron, executive editor of, a national online news service owned by McClatchy Newspapers. "It can be clarified, corrected or retracted. But it would be dishonest to go back and, somehow, make believe it never existed (by expunging a libelous story from an electronic archive). ... I could see a judge ordering that a note, or some kind of notification, be placed in an electronic archive of the story. But ... the offending article would have been made a part of a public court record. Consider this: If the evidence of libel were wiped out, would there be any libel anyway? If a tree falls in the forest ..."

New media don't apply old ways

The Internet is a "new media," and some of these rules and policies come from "old media." Online news organizations that are not affiliated with print publications in some cases take different approaches -- ones that classically trained librarians might find less than ethically pure.

At, executive producer Andrew Beers explains that the policy on the news site is to correct stories that are found to be inaccurate. The site will not publish a known inaccuracy, and it would remove a story that was found to be libelous. does not currently have a public archive, though it does keep an internal one. Stories are often kept online for many days or weeks, and old stories are sometimes brought back to life as links when a new development on the topic makes headlines again. A publicly accessible archive of everything published on is a possibility at some future date.

On a site like, where you'll find audio and video clips as well as text news stories, there's also the possibility that a multimedia clip could contain a serious mistake or slanderous statement. Beers says that in such a case, the clip would simply be removed from the site. (It would be as though it never existed, since there's no accessible archive of the clip. In the event of a court action, of course, there would be a record in the site's internal archive.)

CNET handles the corrections issue a bit differently, and its executives appear to have thought through the archival ethical issues a bit deeper. According to spokeswoman Karen Wood, the site has a policy that errors are not to be kept in any story and are corrected.

The way errors in CNET stories are handled is that a correction is published on a separate "Corrections" page, linked to off the main home page. From a correction notice on that page, a site user can click to see the actual story in its corrected form. Also, the corrected story will contain a note at the bottom noting that the story has been changed from its original form to fix a mistake and explaining why.

The corrections have a limited lifespan. Important corrections are noted on a "front door" page for 24 hours, then moved to a general corrections page where they live for 5 days. After that, stories that remain on the site or are found via user searches continue to contain the correction notation at the bottom of the story. (But you would not see the original erroneous text, as you would with most newspaper digital archive systems.)

CNET takes this approach because "accountability is an important issue for CNET," Wood says. She notes that this approach is only in place on currently, not at the company's site. This is because pages are static HTML, while's pages are dynamically produced. Incorporating the corrections system into the database-driven environment is a challenge and is still being worked on, Wood says.

Because it is an online-only news site, CNET's articles stay on the Web in a sort of "living archive." Thus, archival corrections policies of necessity must be a little different than those of newspaper sites where articles are at some point taken off the Web and placed into a separate archive system.

The final word on fixes

One last point on this subject involves news sites that archive stories not only on the Web, but in commercial databases like Nexis/Lexis, Dialog and Datatimes. According to Bill Sutley, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi who is an expert on news archival issues, it is very difficult for librarians to keep up with corrections when they are serving external archival systems. Some commercial vendors make it difficult to add corrections to articles previously sent to them. "From a journalist's standpoint," Sutley says, "I think you have to tread carefully when using info from the news re-sellers out there because of this very point."

(Note: I want to give credit to Dan Palmer, a journalism student at the University of Regina, who sparked the idea for this column during an e-mail conversation about archival ethics, a topic he was researching and contacted me about for my opinion.)


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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